WWII Mythology Tour: Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain
The Common Thread in All Nations’ Mythologized War Stories
Great Britain is the fourth stop on our WWII myth demolition tour, after WWII east vs west, Italy and the Netherlands. A common thread links all the stops on our tour: a narcissistic nationalism that evades uncomfortable, evidence-based truths. These threaten victimology if the nation was defeated and occupied, or an emotionally satisfying glorious victory if it was on the winning side. The latter is the keystone of national ego in WWII’s victors: the UK, the USA and the former USSR. For example, this populist t-shirt version of WWII:
Commemorating mythologized glorious victories defines backward-looking, nostalgist national identity that fuels contemporary anti-cosmopolitan nationalist populism. Without the fuel of fake history MAGA-style populism can’t take off.
Reality denial begins with the mythologized history that fueled the UK’s delusional blitz and Dunkirk-fed Brexit, America First and neo-confederate Trumpism, Putin’s revanchist nationalism and the separatist war in eastern Ukraine. Nations, like individual psychotherapy patients, can remain stuck in the Einsteinian definition of insanity — deceiving themselves with the same story over and over again and expecting a better result. Nations, even more than individuals, remain possessed by scripted mythology that prevents looking in the mirror of their defeats shorn of mythologized victimology and their victories without the glorification that feeds populist paranoia and fantasy.
Reflective, collective emotional intelligence is not part of the business model of building the scaled up imaginary communities of unrelated strangers we call nations. The cost? Just ask any hungry German or Japanese in bombed-out Berlin or Tokyo in 1946 whether indulging in ego-feeding stab in the back or Bushido fantasies was worth the price paid (if you think education is expensive, try ignorance).
Each country on our WWII Mythology Tour has paid for its own mix of hubris, delusional self-deception and evasion of uncomfortable truths. The bill, when it comes due, is paid differently in each. The USSR and the UK won the war and lost the peace economically and geopolitically. The Germans, Italians and Japanese lost the war and full sovereignty, but won the peace economically. Germany’s eastern European allies — Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia — lost all three. The USA won all three, but confused picking low-hanging postwar geopolitical and economic fruit and cold war victory with permanent global dominance. The result was a grievance and nostalgia driven MAGA epidemic that proved Sinclair Lewis to be prophetic: “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2019/mar/12/viral-image/sinclair-lewis-might-have-liked-quote-about-fascis/)
Confronted with the cost of two forever wars, a disillusioned post-crash America revived Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi isolationist America First slogan, the 20th century geopolitical equivalent of a Confederate slaveholder’s statue.
Most of the stops on our WWII Mythology Demolition Tour involve nations confronting the costs of empire-building. Nazism’s Lebensraum and Italian fascism’s neo-Roman imperial fantasies involved European imperialism’s white supremacist ideology boomeranging back onto Europe through Europe’s late arrivals to the empire-building game, at the cost of tens of millions of lives.
Mythological History Rerun as Farce
Have your cake and eat it too Brexit was born from delusion based on fictionalized history. Since the Brits voted for Brexit and BoJo dreams of reincarnating the Churchill of WWII, it’s worth putting this patient’s mythologizing of WWII on the couch of historical evidence. Dunkirk as a victory and the Battle of Britain in which plucky RAF pilots stood alone against Nazi Germany, are etched into modern British identity. They are modern Britain’s Iliad, with Churchill its Odysseus, as the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s lost an empire and struggled to find a role beyond junior power as America’s cold war island aircraft carrier. So it’s no surprise that the fake history cliche addled mind of Nigel Farage invoked the “blitz spirit” and “Dunkirk spirit” in the runup to the Brexit vote:
“It often seems that Nigel Farage is fighting the Second World War in his head. In the 2016 referendum he campaigned for British withdrawal from the European Union on a battle bus out of which boomed the march from the Second World War blockbuster The Great Escape. The following year found him thrilling to the film Dunkirk. For Farage, the near-disaster of the British military evacuation from northern France in May 1940 was a story to inspire the heroic new evacuation that is Brexit.” (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/little-england-little-blitz-britain/ )
The Tory imperialist Churchill deployed the English language as a weapon in a democratic people’s war with his “blood, toil, tears and sweat and never surrender” speeches, which convey that he and his entire government were as determined to fight the Nazis in the spring and summer of 1940 as the Japanese were to fight the Americans five summers later. Through Edward R. Murrow’s “This is London” reporting in the desperate summer and autumn of 1940, Americans bought into in real time the myth of a leader who never contemplated negotiation and a populace united behind Churchill in its determination to resist the Nazi onslaught.
Christopher Nolan, the director of “Dunkirk”, said so himself:
“Dunkirk is something that you grow up with as a British person. The telling of the story that you get is simplistic and mythical in a way, almost like a fairy tale.”(https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/08/the-churchillian-myths-of-1940/)
First the fictional fairy tale version of Britain’s survival summarized in Ponting’s 1940: Myth and Reality in this sequence:
- The prewar British empire was a strong world power brought down only by a craven policy of appeasement and failure to rearm.
- “Popular discontent…swept Churchill into the premiership as the war leader acclaimed by all. The old policy of appeasement and…weakness disappeared under Churchill’s inspiring leadership.” (1940, Myth and Reality, Clive Ponting,1990, page 2)
- Churchill immediately faced French collapse caused by the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of German blitzkrieg warfare.
- “The British Army, let down by the French and betrayed by the Belgians, fought its way back to the coast, where it was evacuated by a fleet of small boats from the beaches of Dunkirk.” (Ponting, page 2)
- “Alone, the British government, refusing even to entertain the possibility of peace with Germany, decided to fight on to final victory.”
- “Facing a determined threat to invade Britain, brilliant direction of the RAF defeated a German air force that held all the advantages…”
- “Morale in Britain remained high, as the country, united as never before and inspired by Churchill’s regular radio broadcasts, was guided by a benevolent government….
- “The Blitz, one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted, began when Hitler started the policy of bombing major cities.”
- “Churchill, working closely with his friend President Roosevelt and taking advantage of the strong identity of interest between Britain and the US, brought the Americans to the brink of entering the war.”
- “By the end of 1940, Britain was still a great power and firmly established on the road to victory.” (all 10 points: Ponting, page 2)
Here’s a condensed versions of this chivalric Lord of the Rings style fairy tale, by Christopher Hitchens:
“In the fateful spring and early summer of 1940 the people of Britain clustered around their wireless sets to hear defiant and uplifting oratory from their new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. On May 13, having just assumed the burden of office from a weak and cowardly Neville Chamberlain, Churchill promised a regime of “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” On June 4, after the evacuation of the defeated British army from Dunkirk, he pledged, “We shall fight on the beaches.” On June 18 he proclaimed that even if the British Empire were to last for a thousand years, this would be remembered as its “finest hour.” Over the course of the ensuing months Britain alone defied the vast conquering appetites of Hitlerism and, though greatly outclassed in the air, repelled the Luftwaffe’s assault with a handful of gallant fighter pilots. This chivalric engagement — “The Battle of Britain” — thwarted Nazi schemes for an invasion of the island fortress and was thus a hinge event in the great global conflict we now call World War II.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/04/the-medals-of-his-defeats/306061/)
None of this is true. It is, as Dolan said, a fairy tale fit for the big screen, but not real history. What follows is the evidence-based record that refutes each of these ten myths:
Myth #1: Britain the Mighty Global Empire
Empire as Over-leveraged Subprime Real Estate
Britain confronted the high cost of empire-building when its policy planners understood after 1914, and again in the 1930s, that simultaneous defense of its homeland, its French ally, and its Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian and Southeast Asian dominions were far beyond the empire’s military and financial resources. Britain’s empire was the geopolitical version of a subprime mortgaged real estate business kept afloat by a fictitious rating agency facade — and its policymakers knew it. Before 1914 British wealth had been deployed for overseas investment, not domestic industry. WWI presented the bill that came due, with Britain responsible from September 1915 onward for the American purchases made by allies Russia and Italy as well as its own. Only by transferring gold to the US, selling British-owned securities in US companies and raising dollar-denominated loans in the US, made more costly by a falling pound and rising interest rates, could Britain pay for the war effort. Forty percent of Britain’s war effort was financed in the US, which also supplied key industrial inputs:
“It was only the ability of the Allies to import shell and shell steel from neutral America…that averted the decisive victory of the enemy”(Official history of munitions production, Ponting, page 31).
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald McKenna, warned that
“by next June (1917), or earlier, the President of the American Republic will be in a position, if he wishes, to dictate his own terms to us.”…”Our resources available for payments in America are exhausted. Unless the US government can meet in full our expenses in the US…the whole fabric of the alliance will collapse.”(Ponting, page 15)
By the spring of 1917 Britain had less than three weeks of gold in the US and less than eight weeks worth in the UK. Only American entry into the war saved the Allies from negotiating a compromise peace with Germany. The US government’s War Industries Board dictated what resources would go to which ally. (Ponting, page 16).
Britain’s debt had multiplied by nearly twelve times and interest on it consumed 40% of its budget. The finance of empire maintenance was now a strategic liability, like a sovereign that had extended deposit insurance to banks many times the size of its GDP. Britain’s alliance with Japan, signed in 1902, had been a low cost linchpin of imperial defense of the empire’s Indian and Pacific ocean possessions. But its American creditors insisted on ending it and Britain complied in signing the major powers’ naval arms limitation treaty. But in return Britain obtained no American commitment to help defend Australia, New Zealand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and India in return for limiting the size of the Royal Navy.
But a heavily indebted Britain had no choice but to cut defense spending, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, did from 1925–29 under a rolling assumption of no major war for ten years. Japan’s aggression in Manchuria in 1931 and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 led the cabinet’s Defense Requirements Committee to scrap this assumption only in November 1933. The DRC then had to perform imperial defense triage: which threats and their potential targets would have priority. The navy prioritized Japan, the army India and the RAF Europe, which would be a prime theater for the independent bomber force it wanted. The DRC adopted an essentially defensive policy in 1934 that put European continental defense by a British army of just five divisions far down in priority compared to building a naval base in Singapore and a bomber force to deter Germany. A defense review in November 1937 told Prime Minister Chamberlain that
“our Army should be organized to defend this country and the Empire, that to organize it with a military prepossession in favour of a Continental commitment is wrong….Our fourth objective, which can only be provided for after the other objectives have been carried out, should be cooperation in the defence of the territories of any allies we may have in war.” (Ponting, page 23).
Britain’s mythologized version of WWII before Pearl Harbor denies this geopolitical, industrial and financial reality that the architects of Britain’s defense understood all too well: for a bankrupt, overstretched empire all-in continental defense with its French and Belgian allies was impossible.
Myth 2: From Chamberlain to Churchill = From Appeasement to “We Shall Never Surrender”
Phony War Peace Feelers & the 3 Day Wobble in May
Eden, Chamberlain, Churchill and the rest of the British establishment all agreed on one thing in May 1940: negotiate a peace if Germany offered reasonable terms and don’t take the risk of fighting on if further combat would worsen those terms. Churchill’s memoirs of the war attempt to obscure this fact. His six volume memoir of WWII fed the myth that accepting a French proposal to use Mussolini to mediate an unappetizing peace with Germany was never on the table:
“”Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether or not we should fight on alone never found a place on the War Cabinet agenda. We were much too busy to waste time on such unreal, academic issues”. (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/three-days-in-may-trafalgar-studios-1-london-6258133.html)
Clive Ponting’s “1940, Myth and Reality”, points out that government papers are available for research thirty years after the events. The papers about British peace feelers to Germany through Italy were closed until well into the 21st century (Ponting, 1990, page 97). Ponting shows a very different Churchill in 1937 in writing about Hitler:
“Winston Churchill was readying his book Great Contemporaries for the press. It was August 1937. In it was his article on Hitler, written a few years earlier. “Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/08/the-churchillian-myths-of-1940/
Meanwhile, whose Churchillian words are these?:
“”We are a solid and united nation which would rather go down to ruin than admit the domination of the Nazis … If the enemy does try to invade this country we will fight him in the air and on the sea; we will fight him on the beaches with every weapon we have. He may manage here and there to make a breakthrough: if he does we will fight him on every road, in every village, and in every house, until he or we are utterly destroyed.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/04/the-medals-of-his-defeats/306061/
Neville Chamberlain’s. As an ex-prof, I know plagiarism when I see it.
During the Phony War between Poland’s defeat and the German invasion of Norway and Denmark on April 9, 1940 many in the British establishment, rogue Tory Churchill included, engaged in wishful thinking that economic pressure could bring about Hitler’s replacement by a more “moderate” leader and that the war would end by spring. That Goering, contacted through the Swedish businessman Dahlerus, was viewed as just such a figure shows how deluded the British establishment was (Ponting, page 98).
The pro-German American ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, reported in October 1939 that “Churchill was talking about accepting an armistice with Germany if offered reasonable terms.” So was Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, who, when asked in March 1940 what Britain should do, responded, “come to the best possible terms as soon as possible….we have no chance of avoiding defeat” (Ponting, page 99).
The entire British establishment expected the war to end with an armistice and a negotiated peace, like WWI. None wanted the collapse of Germany, viewed as a bulwark against Bolshevism, viewed as the real threat, especially after Stalin launched the invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939. Australian Prime Minister Menzies called Churchill “a menace and publicity seeker” and said “Britain should make peace with Germany before real war made the terms too stiff and combine together against the real enemy: Bolshevism.”(Ponting, page 100).
Churchill was certainly no steel-eyed prophet of military reality. He was as deluded as the appeasement wing of the British establishment, echoing in January 1940 Anthony Eden’s view that “Herr Hitler has lost the initiative”: “Hitler has already lost his best chance.” There is simply no daylight between Churchill’s view and Chamberlain’s April 1940 view that “Hitler has missed the bus.” (Ponting, page 44)
Myth 3: Germany, the Inevitable Invincible Blitzkrieg
Germany’s military superiority and victorious blitzkrieg, was a partially random event unconnected to superior war materiel. First the materiel…
“The German army which faced the Allies in 1940 was in a poor state. Only 5% of its strength was in armored panzer divisions, and 90% of the tanks in those divisions were obsolete training models dating from the early 1930s or taken over from the Czech army in 1939. Only the modern Panzer Mark III and IV matched Allied models and Germany produced just 45 Mark IVs in 1939….The German army used 2.7 million horses, twice as many as in WWI. The standard rifle was based on an 1898 design.” (Ponting, page 79)
The Allies had 4200 tanks to Germany’s 2800, 11500 artillery vs 7700 and more men: 3.7 million vs 2.7 million (Cook, Armor page 8). Only four infantry divisions were motorized so they could carry out integrated operations with the panzers.
Pilot Hoenmann Makes a Random Wrong Turn
A chance crash on January 10, 1940 of a German plane in Vucht, Belgium in which the officer passenger carried Germany’s war plans. The result: changing the existing plan was imperative: “A note in General Jodl’s diary on 12 January summed up what he had said to Hitler: ‘If the enemy is in possession of all the files, situation catastrophic!’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechelen_incident)
“Results: In the short term no damage appeared to have been done but it has been argued that in the longer term the consequences of this incident were disastrous for Belgium and France. When the real invasion came, on 10 May 1940, the Germans had fundamentally changed their strategy and this change resulted in the swift Fall of France, whereas arguably even a partial German victory would have been far from certain if the original plan had been followed.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechelen_incident)
Despite the debate about whether the Mechelen Incident really shifted German plans, the weight of evidence shows that Hitler pivoted to Manstein’s more concentrated Ardennes attack strategy:
“Jodl recorded on 13 February that Hitler concurred, referring to the Mechelen Incident: “We should then attack in the direction of Sedan,” Hitler told Jodl. “The enemy is not expecting us to attack there. The documents held by the Luftwaffe officers who crash landed have convinced the enemy that we only intend to take over the Dutch and Belgian coasts.” Within days of this discussion Hitler had personally talked to Von Manstein and the Führer had given it the green light. The plan that had caused so much mayhem when it was captured by the Belgians in 1940 was replaced.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechelen_incident)
Human nature resists the influence of luck and randomness in large event outcomes. This is one case in which a random event undermines the myth of inevitable German victory. No plane crash = no blitzkrieg breakthrough at Sedan.
Myth 4.1: Small Boats Rescue vs the Real Rescuers
Actually, the German army didn’t actually interfere much with the evacuation nor was there much fighting in Dunkirk itself. “German naval activity off Dunkirk had been non-existent” before May 28 (https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2019/08/06/german-naval-activity-off-dunkirk-1940/), while the sinking of 31 ships on June 1 did not prevent the evacuation of 64429 troops. The small craft lionized in the movie and in British wartime myth rescued only 18575 out of the 338600 evacuated troops, 125000 of whom were French (https://www.jstor.org/stable/25764582?seq=1). Many of the French troops rescued were later reembarked to France’s west coast to continue the fight and then tragically lost to the war effort within 3–4 weeks. The real rescuers were the French army troops who defended Dunkirk. In the entire campaign of 1940 the French lost 120000 killed and missing vs about 11000 for the British. The French army fielded 88 divisions vs Britain’s 9. It was the French that rescued the British more than vice versa.
The small boats of movie mythology ignores the presence of the French navy in the evacuation and the key role played by French troops who fought to protect the operation on Dunkirk’s perimeter:
“During the late afternoon of 1 June, the French naval vessels off Dunkirk once again came in for severe punishment; at 1600 Stukas fell on a convoy of French auxiliaries, sinking three of them — Denis Papin, Venus and Moussaillon — within five minutes….Admiral Ramsay planned to lift as many men as possible in a single operation on the night of 1/2 June. It had originally been planned to complete the evacuation on this night, but this was no longer feasible; there could be no question of abandoning the French troops who had fought so hard on the perimeter, and through whom the British had passed on their way to the beaches. Ramsay therefore decided to concentrate all available ships after dark in the Dunkirk and Malo areas, from where the maximum lift might be obtained. For this purpose he had at his disposal some 60 ships, together with the many small craft still involved in the operation; the French could provide ten ships and about 120 fishing craft.”
Had the British Army been “let down by the French collapse”, the evacuation of 64429 troops on June 1 would never have happened, and Operation Dynamo’s logistical mastermind, Admiral Bertram Ramsay knew it.
Myth 4.2: Britain Let Down by the French Collapse
It was not the French army alone that collapsed while Britain fought a committed battle against Germany. In fact Britain withdrew most of the RAF from the battle to fight another day, while the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in northern France amounted to just nine divisions, less than the Dutch army and 1/10 of French strength of 88 divisions, raised from a population smaller than Britain’s. This confirmed “French suspicions that Britain expected its allies to bear the brunt of the fighting and made for strained relations even before the events of May 1940.” (Ponting, page )
The French understood that the impetus for appeasement and the “peace in our time” Munich agreement surrendering the Czech Sudetenland to Germany did not originate only from Chamberlain. His Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden’s complaint to his PM shows how deeply appeasement was embedded within the British military:
“what the Chiefs of Staff would really like to do is to reorientate our whole foreign policy and to clamber on the bandwagon with the dictators, even though that process meant parting company with France and estranging our relations with the United States.” (Ponting, page 26)
There was no daylight between this view and Chamberlain’s that “in the absence of any powerful ally….we must adjust our foreign policy to our circumstances.” (ibid). But by removing the Czech deterrent to Germany’s east, France’s strategic position was weakened by an appeasement policy shaped by Britain choosing air, naval and imperial over continental defense. Britain had agreed to assist France in the event of a German attack, but not to commit any land forces. When the French made it clear that any meaningful alliance required Britain to commit a land force, the government agreed to four divisions in January 1939. After Germany occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia in March, the government doubled that without consulting the army. (Ponting, page 29). For this western alliance any equivalent to NATO’s Article Five was an incomplete and ad hoc work in progress.
When French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud phoned Churchill on May 16 to ask for ten fighter squadrons to save the battle for France, saying “London has to be defended right here”…Churchill made it clear that in the last resort the British could manage without the French…” (Ponting, page 85, 87)
In fact Churchill had a realistic view of Britain’s military commitment to war on the continent, which he omitted from his own memoirs: “Of course if one side fights and the other does not, the war is apt to become somewhat unequal.” (Ponting, page 89). Churchill rejected two more French appeals for support after Dunkirk: “We should recognize that whereas the present land battle was of great importance, it would not be decisive one way or the other for Great Britain.” (Ponting, page 88). The British general Pownall, Lord Gort’s chief of staff, expressed the same idea in saltier language: “we don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians.” (Ponting, page 90).
This view wasn’t far from Churchill’s view of the French, written on the 18th, a full week before British commander Lord Gort’s May 25 decision to abandon the counterattack at Arras, withdraw to Dunkirk and evacuate the BEF:
“The Chiefs of Staff must consider whether it would not be well to send only half 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.” (Lukacs, Five Days in London, page 18)
The Anglo-French alliance was a kind of prisoner’s dilemma, in which each side had an overwhelming incentive to pull out first. But the incentives were as asymmetrical as the contributions of each to the alliance and war effort. On May 25, during the stalled Arras counterattack from the north by the British and the French from the south against the German flanks:
The previous night Reynaud had telegraphed to Churchill that the British army “was no longer conforming to General Weygand’s plan and has withdrawn toward the Channel ports.” Churchill had answered, ‘We have every reason to believe that Gort is still persevering in his southward move.” This was not so. Two British divisions were withdrawing from Arras. Churchill knew that the ‘Weygand plan,” the joint Franco-British counterattack, amounted to nothing: ‘“Nothing in the movement 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.” There was no such pressure, strong or weak, and Churchill must have known that develop it would not.’” (Lukacs, Five Days in London, page 97)
Churchill’s own words validated French suspicions:
“He would not be at all surprised if a peace offer was made to the French, having regard to their weak position and to the likelihood of an attack on France by Italy. If France went out of the war, she must, however, make it a condition that our Army was allowed to leave France intact, and to take away its munitions, and that the soil of France was not used for an attack on England. Further, France must retain her Fleet. If an offer were made on these terms, he [the prime minister] would accept it, and he thought that we could hold out in this country once we had got our Army back from France.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 97).
Churchill clearly understood that Calais was far more important to Britain’s survival than the tentative counterattack at Arras: “: “Defence of Calais to the utmost is of the highest importance to our country and our Army.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 97) and:
“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 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.” (Churchill quoted in Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory, Julian Thompson, page 172.
German blitzkrieg warfare reversed the usual Roman imperial strategy of dividet et imperam, divide and conquer. In May 1940 conquest sowed division, mistrust and a rats’ race to get off the sinking allied ship, a race Churchill was determined to have Britain win to guarantee its survival. In doing so, Churchill implemented a longstanding policy that ranked defense of its empire and aerial defense of its island above continental defense in its hierarchy of strategic needs.
Myth 5: “We Shall Never Surrender”
Churchill’s Back Door Deal Exploration
The play “Three Days in May", burst the fairy tale bubble shown in the “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” movies. They show a very different Churchill in the minutes of his nine cabinet meetings with Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax and the unity government’s Labour ministers Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood. Halifax wanted to pursue a French proposal to have Italy mediate a negotiated peace with Germany that would surrender Gibraltar, Malta and Suez to the Germans.
The “Three Days in May” play I saw in London in 2011 shows a guilt-ridden Chamberlain standing more firmly against negotiation with Germany than a briefly wobbling Churchill who appears to take Lord Halifax’s mediation proposal seriously. Churchill needed to keep both his Foreign Secretary Halifax and Chamberlain, leader of the Conservative Party, in his cabinet to stay in power. Dividet et imperam, divide and conquer, was the only viable strategy. The play shows how Churchill, the master manipulator, pulled it off by initially taking Halifax’s Mussolini mediation strategy seriously:
“This play demonstrates how it was that the old appeaser, Chamberlain, ended up playing such a pivotal role in supporting Churchill’s insistence that “nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1000142405297020425750 4577150713958230118)
In other words, Churchill needed Chamberlain to shoot down Halifax’s mediation proposal and corner him into not resigning and bringing down the Tory-Labour war cabinet with Britain’s survival at stake.
But the play, based in part on Churchill secretary Jock Colville’s diaries, shows just three of the nine cabinet meetings from May 26–28 held just as the Dunkirk evacuation began and “omits the crucial detail that Churchill hastily summoned a secret meeting of all his party’s ministers to get their stamp of approval on fighting to the bitter end.” (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/03/three-days-in-may-review
This full cabinet meeting, from which Churchill could bring back full support for fighting on to the five man War Cabinet, that shot down Halifax’s Mussolini mediation proposal and consolidated Churchill’s precarious position.
Whatever Churchill felt about Britain fighting on alone, he could not do so with only Labour ministers supporting this decision. Unless Churchill had the full support of all the Conservative cabinet ministers, the popular will to fight on could not be reflected in the government. Chamberlain was still the leader of the Conservative Party. Churchill had to cajole him into rejecting Halifax’s Mussolini mediation proposal without Chamberlain admitting that appeasement at Munich in 1938 had been a mistake. To square this circle, Churchill had to trade redemption for a dying Chamberlain to get his support for a Tory version of a People’s War. The hinge in Churchill’s May 1940 Hinge of Fate moment was far more rickety and fraught with risk to Churchill’s weak political hand than Churchill or British WWII mythology would ever admit.
Chris Nolan’s, BoJo’s and Farage’s fairy tale also omit that Churchill was prepared to cede part of Britain’s empire to Germany if Hitler were to offer reasonable peace terms. The idea of continuing the war in the hope of rescue by America didn’t take hold until July 1940 (Ponting, page 96)
And those stirring speeches in which Churchill marshalled the English language as a weapon in a people’s war?
“The three crucial broadcasts were made not by Churchill but by an actor hired to impersonate him. Norman Shelley, who played Winnie-the-Pooh for the BBC’s Children’s Hour, ventriloquized Churchill for history and fooled millions of listeners. Perhaps Churchill was too much incapacitated by drink to deliver the speeches himself.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/ 2002/04/the-medals-of-his-defeats/306061/)
Myth 6: Plucky Britain Fights On Alone to Stop An Imminent German Invasion
Reality: Germany, a Reluctant, Ambivalent Enemy
Hitler and his staff generals were astonished by the speed of the Sedan breakthrough and advance to the Channel. Hitler “was nervous and worried” and “during the days of his army’s most rapid advances — the 17th and 18th — kept warning his generals against the dangers of a British-French counterattack, which never came.” (Five Days in London, May 1940, John Lukacs, 1997, page 16). But Hitler had other matters on his mind. On May 21 he told General Franz Halder, “we are seeking contact with England on the basis of a division of the world.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 16). Hitler also shared the view of much of the British establishment that Churchill would not last long, that he was “widely distrusted as a man of unstable temperament, unsound judgement and rhetorical (and also alcoholic) excess…little better than an ungentlemanly, almost declassé adventurer.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 21). Hitler quite reasonably expected that he could soon do a better deal with Lord Halifax, the successor preferred by Chamberlain, King George and most Tories of the British establishment (Lukacs, Five Days, page 12–13)
Other material limitations led Hitler to refrain from annihilating the BEF with Guderian’s and Rommel’s panzers and opt out of the completely unforeseen opportunity for a cross-channel invasion. The Germans’ amphibious capability was so deficient they had to requisition canal barges to be towed by tugs across the channel. They had had difficulties even in the Meuse River crossings in May, which General Guderian had called “a miracle”, and had resulted from the improvised decisions taken by lower level commanders disobeying orders on the spot:
“The attack in the 10th Panzer Division sector did not begin nearly as well….The aerial bombardment against the French guns had little effect. Artillery fire destroyed a considerable portion of the boats that were to cross the 10th Panzer Division. For a while the division considered withdrawing the attack….(The German Breakthrough at Sedan, Armor, Sept-Oct 2004, Sam Cook, JFK Special Warfare School, pages 9, 12)
The source of the surprise breakthrough that stunned all sides:
“Were it not for the remarkable small unit actions and combined arms integration at the lowest levels, the bridgehead at Sedan could easily have achieved only local success instead of a dramatic breakthrough.” (Cook, Armor, 2004, page12)
As stunned as their opponents by instant success in the Battle of France, the Germans had made no plans to invade Britain. German military planners certainly had no enthusiasm for such an amphibious operation, and had precious little time to plan it before the onset of autumn weather. Their first memorandum on such an operation, written at the end of June 1940, stated:
“A landing in England, therefore, should not have as its objective the military defeat of England….but rather to give the coup de grace…An invasion must nonetheless be prepared in all details as a last resort.” (Ponting,page 124)
Clearly invasion would come only if Hitler could not conclude a peace with Britain. From June 23 to July 11 Hitler and his generals held no meetings about invasion. Hitler felt he had no quarrel with the British and their empire. He thought along the same lines as the appeasing British establishment: wait for the other side to see sense and then do a deal on reasonable terms in order to deal with the real threat: the USSR. One of his generals wrote on July 13:
“The Fuhrer is most preoccupied with the question of why England does not want to step on the path to peace. Like us, he sees the answer to the question in the hopes which England puts upon Russia.He therefore reckons to have to force England to make peace. But he does not like it very much. Reason: if we smash England militarily, the British Empire will collapse. Germany will not benefit from this. With German blood we would obtain something whose beneficiaries would only be Japan, America and others.” (Ponting, page 124)
On July 16 Hitler’s directive to his generals showed his ambivalence, instructing them “to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out, an invasion.” On July 21 admitted that an invasion would be “very hazardous” and that he would try other ways to bring Britain to ask for peace. As his army and navy fought over different invasion plans Hitler showed little interest, unlike his micromanagement of the invasion of France and the Low Countries. Only 60% of the canal barges and 25% of the tugs had been assembled by September 11. The navy, which had suffered heavy losses in the Norway campaign, had just nine warships, no aircraft carriers and a few torpedo boats (Ponting, page 125).
He showed “more interest in attacking eastwards and asked for the first plans to be drawn up for an attack on the Soviet Union.” (Ponting, page 125)
The Britain alone against Germany fairy tale makes sense only if its global empire that included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, the Suez Canal and Middle Eastern and Malayan oil fields are not counted.
Myth 7: A United People “All Behind You Winston”
We’ll start Myth Seven at the elite level and work our way down, like driving in a Rolls Royce to the smelly overcrowded tube station Churchill entered for his only lifetime ride on public transit. First, adjectives used to describe Churchill by various pillars of the British establishment:
“highly gifted, but undeniable cad….shameless cadger and incorrigible scrounger” (Viscountess Nancy Astor, 1st woman MP)
“a delightful rogue who lacked political judgement…unscrupulous, unreliable and unattractively ambitious…half breed….mongrel” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 21)
“an almost universal expectation that Churchill’s ministry was going to be short-lived.” (The Holy Fox: The Life of Lord Halifax, Andrew Roberts, page 203)
“God help the country…which commits its existence to the hands of a dictator whose past achievements, even though inspired by a certain amount of imagination, have never achieved success….whether the wise old elephants (Halifax, Chamberlain) will ever be able to hold the rogue elephant, I doubt.” (Viscount Samuel Hoare, Lukacs, Five Days, page 23)
“Great as are (Churchill’s) uses…he is also a real danger, always tempted by the objective, never counting his resources to see if the objective is attainable.” (General Henry Pownall, Lukacs, Five Days, page 24)
General Pownall again, on the proposed May 20 counterattack on Amiens: “a scandalous (i.e. Winstonized) plan.” On May 24:
“How does he think we are to collect eight divisions and attack as he suggests…an attack like this to be staged involving three nationalities at an hour’s notice…the man is mad.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 24)
“Defeatism in London among the richer classes.” (Oliver Harvey, Baron Harvey of Tasburgh, diplomat) Lukacs, Five Days, page 19)
“At the moment it looks like the greatest military disaster in all history.” — General Edmond Ironside (Lukacs, Five Days, page 18)
At the popular level, the Mass Observation survey organization’s largely female volunteers followed the pulse of popular feeling through interviews. Angus Calder’s “The People’s War: Britain, 1939–1945” portrays a story very different from a people united against the German blitz. Evacuation brought two different countries that barely knew each other into awkward contact:
“in this area of suburban Essex that an influential local dignitary, confronted with the idea that the homeless should be compulsorily billeted there, said flatly, ‘I will not have these people billeted on our people’. Even now, when the need for evacuation was obvious enough, some of the well to-do people of the suburbs and countryside still revealed the bleak class hatred which had underlain the first response to evacuation a year before.” (Calder, 1969, page 196)
“Anti-semitism persisted, and was inflamed to some extent when better-off Jews (like better-off Gentiles) bought their way out of London. Fascists still scrawled ‘This is a Jewish War’ on some of the walls which still stood, and anti-semitic feeling in the shelters was always a problem.” (page 197)
The percentage of London’s population that sheltered in fetid tube stations was far less than mythology suggests:
“Early in the blitz, some enterprising Londoners discovered the existence of a fine set of caves in the sandy hills at Chislehurst in Kent. These were ancient workings, pleasant, airy and equable in temperature. Families took over individual caves and set up homes — sometimes with double beds, armchairs and tables. Special trains were run from London every night, and the caves eventually came to have their own barber’s shop, concerts and church services. Several thousand people might dwell there in great safety.”
“The first ‘Shelter Census’, early that month, suggested that in the central area only 9 per cent slept in public shelters; 4 per cent in the underground railway system (though some accounts of the blitz make it sound as if almost everyone took to the tubes); and 27 per cent in domestic shelters. In the outer suburbs, these proportions were even lower.”
Mass evacuation of urban working class children entailed mass mutual incomprehension:
“Billetors were often appalled by the incomprehension with which evacuees confronted knives, forks, hot meals and green vegetables. They learnt to their horror that in the slums mothers would hand their children a slab of bread and margarine for supper, which they would eat standing up, or would send them out for a bag of chips. Such children, it turned out, might never have slept in a bed. Anxious hostesses tiptoeing in to visit their charges on the first night assumed they had fled until they found them sleeping on the floor under the bed. (‘The country is a funny place,’ one child remarked. ‘They never tell you you can’t have no more to eat, and under the bed is wasted.’ In the worst quarters of the cities, the absence of tap water often made it impossible to cook vegetables; overcrowding meant that children shared beds with their parents and siblings, or did without; bread and margarine was often all that families could afford. And poverty, of course, was responsible for the appalling clothes in which many children arrived, and for the frequent absence of any change of clothing.” (Calder, page 48)
Evacuation of children and sometimes mothers from cities expected to be targets of German bombing:
“exposed the inadequacy of Britain’s social services, both in town and country. It offered experimental proof that the poor were hideously poor, in the southeast as well as in Nineteenth-century Britain. It thrust a better standard of living in front of small townschildren, and a far worse one against the noses of middle-class householders.” (Calder, page 36)
And introduced two mutually uncomprehending nations to each other:
“Oliver Lyttelton, who would, within a few months, become a leading member of Churchill’s Government, had volunteered to put up ten evacuees in his spacious country house, and received thirty-one. ‘I got a shock,’ he writes. ‘I had little dreamt that English children could be so completely ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, and that they would regard the floors and carpets as suitable places upon which to relieve themselves.’ If sophisticated public men were surprised, the average middle-class householder was stupefied. The state of the children was such that the school had to be fumigated after the reception. Except for a small number the children were filthy, and in this district we have never seen so many verminous children lacking any knowledge of clean and hygienic habits. Furthermore, it appeared they were un-bathed for months. One child was suffering from scabies and the majority had it in their hair and the others had dirty septic sores all over their bodies. Their clothing was in a deplorable condition, some of the children being literally sewn into their ragged little garments…..It throws light on the Glasgow tenements, where one broken-down lavatory might be shared (or ignored) by thirty people, and it was the cleanest families who refused to use the communal closets” (Calder, page 45–47)
Churchill exemplified British ruling class ignorance of ordinary Britons’ lives. “Mrs Churchill once said to her husband’s doctor, ‘You probably don’t realize, Charles, that he knows nothing of the life of ordinary people. He’s never been in a bus and only once on the Underground.’ (Calder, page 111)
This class apartheid Britain would begin to pass into history after the war, when ordinary people voted Churchill and the Tories out to get the NHS and welfare state Britain they had fought for.
Myth 8: The Blitz and the Battle of Britain
Luftwaffe’s Errant London Bombing
The Blitz myth shows how humans are fooled by randomness….and Edward R. Murrow’s This Is London reporting. Hitler had ordered that London was off limits to bombing and in his attack order of August 5 had specifically vetoed “terror bombing” (Ponting, page 132). Hermann Göring’s general order, issued on 30 June 1940, stated:
“The war against England is to be restricted to destructive attacks against industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces. … The most thorough study of the target concerned, that is vital points of the target, is a pre-requisite for success. It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civilian population.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_bombing_during_World_War_II#:~:text=Germany's%20first%20strikes%20were%20not,less%20than%20one%20a%20month.
On August 24, 1940 off course home-bound German planes accidentally bombed the City of London’s financial district. Churchill then ordered the RAF to bomb Berlin, with the first raid carried out on August 25: “Little damage was done, but one bomb killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo.” (https://www.historynet.com/target-berlin-the-first-air-raid-on-the-german-capital.htm). The August 25 raid targeted Tempelhof airfield and the Siemens factories in Siemenstadt, but their inaccuracy caused the Germans to see them as indiscriminate, which enraged Hitler. He then ordered that the ‘night piracy’ of the British be punished by a concentrated night offensive, especially London. On September 4 Hitler said in a public speech that:
“The other night the English had bombed Berlin. So be it. But this is a game at which two can play. When the British Air Force drops 2000 or 3000 or 4000 kg of bombs, then we will drop 150 000, 180 000, 230 000, 300 000, 400 000 kg on a single night. When they declare they will attack our cities in great measure, we will eradicate their cities. The hour will come when one of us will break — and it will not be National Socialist Germany!” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_bombing_during_World_War_II#:~:text=Germany's%20first%20strikes%20were%20not,less%20than%20one%20a%20month.)
This strategic shift saved the RAF’s airfields and radar installations and committed the Luftwaffe, which had no strategic bomber force, to a policy of daylight bombing of cities against an intact defense and with no clear strategic goal in place. Was the new policy supposed to prepare for the invasion of Britain, destroy British military industries and the RAF or get Britain to sue for peace?
The myth of Luftwaffe superiority
In Hitler’s system of divide and conquer bureaucratic darwinism, Germany’s air force was the private fiefdom of Hermann Goering, a political, not a military choice. From its inception it was built to support army operations, not as an independent force for strategic bombing. It had only twin engined medium bombers that could carry only light bomb loads, no equivalent to Britain’s Lancaster bombers or American B-17s. The Luftwaffe’s strategic misdirection was partially random, partially due to Goering’s incompetence:
“Goering’s first chief of staff, Generalleutnant Walther Wever, was a big advocate of the Ural (strategic) bomber program, but when he died in a flying accident in 1936, support for the strategic bomber program began to dwindle rapidly under Goering’s influence. Under pressure from Goering, Albert Kesselring, Wever’s replacement, opted for a medium, all-purpose, twin-engine tactical bomber. Erhard Milch, who strongly supported Goering’s conceptions, was instrumental in the Luftwaffe’s future. Milch believed that the German industry (in terms of raw materials and production capacity) could only produce 1,000 four-engine heavy bombers per year, but many times that number of twin-engine bombers. In spring of 1937, just when the Luftwaffe’s own Technical Office had passed the Ju-89 and Do-19 heavy bomber models as ready for testing, Goering ordered a halt to all work on the four-engine strategic bomber program.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_bombing_during_World_War_II#:~:text=Germany's%20first%20strikes%20were%20not,less%20than%20one%20a%20month)
“”Well, those inferior heavy bombers of the other side are doing a wonderful job of wrecking Germany from end to end,” was his acid-tongued response.” — Hermann Goering, 1943 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ural_bomber)
German fighters had limited range and could escort bombers over southeast England for only 25 minutes. German bombers over other British cities would be unescorted. As the home team, Britain could also recover bailed out pilots and damaged aircraft, while Germany would lose both.
Germany had more total aircraft, but Britain’s newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production, headed by press baron Lord Beaverbrook, raised British aircraft production to two and a half times that of Germany. Beaverbrook raised aircraft production from 2729 in the first 1/3 of 1940 to 4576 in the second 1/3 of the year. Actual output was 50% above planned levels (Ponting, page 129). His unorthodox move fast and break things crisis management style made him Britain’s answer to American Liberty Ship-a-day builder Henry Kaiser and overcame RAF inertia. Examples of hidebound RAF inertia:
- There were 9000 pilots for 5000 aircraft, but the RAF complained constantly of pilot shortages. But 30% of trained pilots were in office jobs and 20% trainers. Despite this the RAF turned out 300 aircraft/week vs 200 pilots. “The near fatal shortage of pilots during the Battle of Britain was a situation entirely of the RAF’s making.” (Ponting, page 130–31)
- The RAF kept the peacetime squadron system in which redeploying pilots where needed involved moving the entire squadron — crews, aircraft, spare parts — which entailed a one week delay before the squadron could become operational again (Ponting, page 131).
- The Spitfire was the best fighter against German Messerschmidt fighters. But the RAF practiced no form of yield management to move them where needed. Fighter Group 11 in the southeast bore the brunt of the German assault, but 70% of its planes were Hurricanes. Less than 1/3 of Britain’s best planes were operating in the most important sector. Groups 11 and 12 (the Midlands) had useless Blenheims, while short of Spitfires (Ponting, page 131)
Only 15% of British pilots ever shot down a German aircraft. September 15, 1940 is celebrated as Battle of Britain Day, on which the RAF at the time claimed 185 downed German aircraft. The real number, confirmed later: 60.
In the end the best squadron in the Battle of Britain was….the Polish squadron 303. Its commander Jan Zumbach shot down 12 German planes. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Zumbach). The RAF’s Polish and Czech pilots’ daredevil combat style changed the RAF just as Jackie Robinson transformed major league baseball:
“Polish fighter pilots quickly built up a reputation for “daredevil and suicidal behavior” in aerial combat. These Spitfire and Hurricane jockeys were so consumed by their mission and their incredible hatred of their Axis foe, that they would often deliberately put themselves near the edge of death just to inflict damage. Instead of breaking away from the fight once their magazines ran dry or their guns jammed, Polish pilots would continue attacking, using their aircraft as battering rams and their propellers as buzzsaws. Lest they let their enemies escape, these pilots literally flew their fighters into German bombers repeatedly until their prey fell out of the sky. If that didn’t work, they would also fly close to the wings or tails of enemy aircraft in order to use their propellers as impromptu saws, chewing off control surfaces until the aircraft crashed. And if push came to shove (also literally), Polish pilots were also known to maneuver their fighters above German planes, making contact and forcing them downwards either into the ground or the waters of the English Channel. At this point, they could only really be described as either certifiably insane or downright courageous, or some combination of the two. RAF commanders were appalled at the antics of these volunteer pilots, but quickly understood their zealousness for the fight when it was discovered that German military personnel were issued a “kill-on-sight” order for all Polish pilots captured during the WWII.” (https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/these-ww2-polish-pilots-were-either-certifiably-insane-downright-courageous-or-a-bit-of-both/)
In other words, the plucky fight on alone “owe so much to so few” British exceptionalism of Churchill’s speeches was, substantially, Polish and Czech in origin. Like Guderian in the Wehrmacht, the Polish RAF squadrons were disruptive startups within an ossified tradition and caste-bound guild. Goering’s Luftwaffe had no equivalent and lost the Battle of Britain because Germany’s only disruptive order-flouting startup was on the ground. Eventually, even
“Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who once was so reluctant to allow Polish pilots into battle, summarised their contribution in probably the most telling way: ‘Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same’.” (https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-polish-pilots-who-flew-in-the-battle-of-britain)
But the RAF “came perilously close to losing the Battle of Britain through stubborn adherence to tradition and hidebound procedures even at a time of supreme national emergency”, but was saved by a random German navigational error, Wever’s random 1936 plane crash and Beaverbrook’s and Zumbach’s RAF-disrupting startups. (Ponting, page 137)
Myth 9: UK-US “Identity of Interest”, Franklin and Winston Friendship
The intimate friendship portrayed in Jon Meacham’s book Franklin and Winston came much later. Before 1940 FDR and Churchill had met only once, nearly 20 years before. FDR despised empires and Britain’s was the largest in world history. Churchill was an unapologetic imperialist, as was Anthony Eden, who, as Foreign Secretary, wrote to Chamberlain described Japan’s invasion of China as “‘upstart’ nations encroaching upon “white race” preserves.” (Ponting, page 25). Hardly an expression of the Four Freedoms war aims that FDR envisioned.
As early as May 15, 1940 Churchill envisioned the fall of France and had warned Roosevelt:
“I trust you realise, Mr. President, that the voice and the force of a 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.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 72–73)
Churchill wrote back two days after FDR’s reply, on May 19: “We are determined to persevere to the very end…if American assistance is to play any part, it must be available soon….” (ibid). And again on May 21, explicitly mentioning the ultimate strategic nightmare for the US: the possible surrender of the British fleet as the price of peace with Germany:
“you must not be blind to the fact that the sole remaining bargaining counter with Germany would be the fleet….Excuse me, Mr. President, putting this nightmare bluntly….I could not answer for my successors who in utter despair and helplessness might have to accommodate themselves to the German will.” (Lukas, Five Days, page 73)
The “identity of interest” and “special relationship” would arrive only after America had consummated at least the financial dissolution of the British empire through Lend Lease. FDR clearly viewed Anglo-French defeat as an opportunity to dismantle the British empire. On May 24, 1940 he asked Canada to:
“press Churchill to send the British fleet across the Atlantic, the sooner the better — that is, before Hitler’s peace terms could include the surrender of the fleet. Roosevelt added that Churchill should not be told of the American origin of the proposal. Roosevelt had come to realize that Britain may have to sue for peace — that is, surrender.” (Lukacs, Five Days, page 76)
Reality: The Ponzi Finance of Fighting Alone
On June 18, 1941, three days before Britain would no longer be alone in the fight against Germany, Goebbels wrote in his diary about Churchill, “were it not for him, this war would have ended long ago.” (Blood,Toil, Tears and Sweat, John Lukacs, page 11). True, but why?
The myth of plucky Britain that fought on alone against Germany assumes that Britain had the resources to do so. Britain had the world’s largest navy and produced more combat aircraft than Germany in 1939. Nevertheless, by August 22, 1940 Churchill’s Chancellor the Exchequer told him that without American aid Britain would be financially incapable of continuing the war.
Though facing imminent bankruptcy, Britain was hardly alone. It had the support of a vast overseas empire that included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, the Suez canal and Middle Eastern oil fields. But the empire did not have American steel and machine tool manufacturing capacity essential for producing materiel to fight on.
Yet the first land-based defeat of an Axis power came not from a far from alone Britain, but from….Greece against an Italian invasion. Greece turning back Italy and the antifascist, pro-western coup in Yugoslavia on March 27, 1941 triggered a German-led invasion of both countries on April 6.
Myth 10: Britain, the Independent Great Power
Reality: Germany and Britain, Parallels in Ponzi War Finance
In January 1939 Hitler’s central banker, Hjalmar Schacht, had told the Fuhrer that the Reich would soon exhaust its reserves of hard currency needed to purchase raw materials essential for war production — copper, oil, rubber, cobalt, silver, aluminum (Hitler’s Secret Bankers, Adam LeBor, 2000). Schacht reading Hitler the financial riot act drove the decision to seize the rest of Czechoslovakia at the end of March and the Fuhrer’s war launch calendar. Having built a regime that was a Ponzi scheme of military Keynesianism, Hitler, his Nazi cronies and the Wehrmacht now faced a use it or lose it choice. On August 22, 1940 Churchill received a similar warning from his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kingsley Wood in a
“Most Secret 7 page paper…entitled “Gold and Exchange Resources. The number of copies was highly restricted and even the ministers present had to surrender their papers before leaving the meeting. It was perhaps the most sombre and devastating paper ever taken by a British cabinet: it forecast Britain’s imminent financial collapse and inability to continue the war.” (Ponting, page 7)
Britain faced the same kind of industrial input shortages combined with the non-convertible currency problem that Schacht had confronted Hitler with in January 1939. In fact Chamberlain’s ministers had been informed of the problem since about the same time as Schacht’s warning to Hitler:
“The background to the paper had been familiar to ministers for more than a year….British industry was incapable of producing the range and quantity of armaments required to win the war. Even those items that could be manufactured domestically were heavily dependent on imports of raw materials and products such as steel. Most of these imports came from the US and had to be paid for either in gold or in dollars.” (Ponting, page 7)
Under the American Neutrality Act Britain could not raise loans to pay for its orders. Even if Britain sold its huge investments in the empire and Latin America, they would not yield dollars, and were therefore irrelevant. On August 22 Wood’s report proclaimed that the day of reckoning at the end of 1940, when Britain would exhaust its dollar reserves, was rapidly approaching, hastened by the need to replace the huge mass of equipment lost in France. And American help would certainly not arrive before the November election.
There was gold held in India and South Africa (about 130 million GBP), by European governments in exile (about 350 million GBP) and 200 million GBP held in Canada by the Vichy France government, which could be seized illegally. Britain was, in essence, in the position of an unemployed debtor with a subprime mortgage on an underwater (negative equity) house whose only recourse to raise funds was the pawn shop:
“Even if all these (gold) resources were somehow made available they could put off the evil hour only for a few months….Britain would still face the same dilemma of choosing between dependence on the United States or peace with Germany. The last resort would be to requisition all gold objects, including wedding rings, in Britain. At most this would raise 20 million GBP….If the military position should unexpectedly deteriorate, we should have to pledge everything we had for the sake of victory, giving the United States, if necessary, a lien on any and every part of British industry.” (Ponting, page 10)
Since Britain no longer had the resources to continue the war, its status as an independent power was finished. Its fate would be decided on America’s presidential yacht, where Franklin Roosevelt dreamed up the Lend Lease program that saved Britain, deploying his rhetorical gift for explaining complex ideas in terms the average American could understand:
“”Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire…I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.”… I don’t want $15 — I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. “ (http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/odlendls.html)
FDR’s first class temperament, in Oliver Wendell Holmes description, rescued Britain from war-ending bankruptcy.
Conclusion: Fake History Fuels Phony Populism
William Faulkner’s aphorism that “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past” perfectly distills how fake history drives the post-imperial senility of the UK’s Battle of Britain Brexit run aground on fishing rights. Without the fuel of the fake fairy tale fantasy version of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, BoJo’s bubble of have cake and eat it too magical thinking on rules-free single market access deflates.
This fairy tale fake history of Britain’s WWII is certainly less virulent than the American edition of fake history that fuels xenophobic national populism: Trump shouting America First, Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi isolationist slogan, while waging a neo-confederate statue defense campaign to succeed Jefferson Davis. Fake history mythologized by nationalism is like the Hotel California, you can check out, but you can never leave.
The next room in the British branch of the Fake History Hotel we’ll open: the myth of Britain’s island apart exceptionalism. This populist myth, a prime driver of Bojo’s Blitzed Battle of Britain Brexit, assumes that the British people were fundamentally different and apart from the collaborationist German-occupied continentals across the channel. The myth collapses under the weight of the evidence in the one part of Britain the Germans occupied, the Channel Islands.
Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, John Lukacs, 2008
Five Days in London, John Lukacs, 1997
1940: Myth and Reality, Clive Ponting, 1990
The Holy Fox: The Life of Lord Halifax, Andrew Roberts, 2004
The People’s War: Britain, 1939–1945, Angus Calder, 1969
The German Breakthrough at Sedan, Armor, Sept-Oct 2004, Sam Cook, JFK Special Warfare School
The Churchillian Myths of 1940, Louis Proyect: https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/08/the-churchillian-myths-of-1940/
Times Literary Supplement: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/little-england-little-blitz-britain/
The Guardian, January 24, 2004: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jan/24/germany.race
The Medals of His Defeats: Our author takes the Great Man down a peg or two — and still finds that Churchill was a great man, The Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Hitchens, April 2002,
We are the Mighty, These WW2 Polish pilots were either certifiably insane, downright courageous — or a bit of both, January 28, 2019, Ian d’Costa: https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/these-ww2-polish-pilots-were-either-certifiably-insane-downright-courageous-or-a-bit-of-both/
Jan Zumbach Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Zumbach
Strategic Bombing During World War Two: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_bombing_during_World_War_II
Mechelen Incident Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechelen_incident
True or False, Graham Stewart, January 11, 2012: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204257504577150713958230118
Dunkirk and the Popular Memory of Britain at War, 1940–58, Penny Summerfield, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 45, №4 (OCTOBER 2010), pp. 788–811 (24 pages), Published By: Sage Publications, Ltd. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25764582
Imperial War Museum: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-polish-pilots-who-flew-in-the-battle-of-britain
German Naval Activity Off Dunkirk, 1940: https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2019/08/06/german-naval-activity-off-dunkirk-1940/
Major General Julian Thompson, Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011) 172.
Dunkirk Evacuation, Jennifer Rosenberg, July 28, 2017 https://www.thoughtco.com/dunkirk-evacuation-british-army-1779311