Winston Churchill, His Finest Hour
Part Two, On The Brink:
Most of my points and comments are easily confirmed by the reader, either from books or from the internet, therefore I have not bothered to make a lot of citations regarding them. Some points, I feel, are not that well known so in those cases I have included references within square brackets.
For Winston Churchill the year 1939 could arguably be seen as the lowest point in his political career. However, with Germany marching into Austria and then Czechoslovakia, the British Nation started to wake up to the harsh reality of the situation in Europe; a situation Churchill had been warning about for years. It would seem that prior to this time everyone was almost going out of their way to ignore him. As a case in point, when Chamberlain took office as Prime Minister he refused to take Churchill with him because he feared that Churchill would dominate the House and make speeches supporting his ideas resulting in no one else having the chance to speak at all. In another incident Churchill proposed that the RAF should engage in “shuttle bombing”, which involved taking off from Britain, bombing German targets and then landing in Poland. Groups of bombers that would be then stationed in Poland would reverse the process so that there would be on going bombing of Germany from both the east and the west. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would have nothing to do with this proposal. The newspapers said that he (Chamberlain) should bring the First Lord of the Admiralty (Churchill) into his cabinet. Churchill was a warrior who knew about aerial bombardment – bring him in. Chamberlain didn’t want Churchill in. [Human Smoke, Nicholas Baker, pg. 127, as reported in the New York Times, August 23, 1939]. Before the year was out Germany would invade Poland and Britain and France would declare war on Germany, bringing about the fall of Chamberlain and launching Churchill into the lime light.
This was a time in the history of the Second World War were nothing seems to have been taking place if you go by what is presented by most television documentaries. True, there was a time when all of Europe was holding its breath “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, but in reality the nations involved were a beehive of activity.
Norway, a neutral nation, was being watched by Germany with envious eyes for her ice-free port of Narvik. Germany relied on iron ore from Sweden for steel production and the only prime winter (ice-free) port for them to ship the iron ore to Germany was in Norway. As early as 8 April, 1939 Churchill instructed the Royal Navy to mine the Norwegian waters. This was planned provoke the German Navy into engaging the British and thereby allow the Royal Navy to destroy the German Navy.
Here we need to back up just a little to the time when Germany invaded Poland and the British and French declared war. Both sides were now poised for combat not unlike two heavy weight prize fighters waiting for the bell to ring announcing the start of the conflict. Waiting, waiting but nothing happened; no bell was rung no shell was fired. Instead the RAF dropped leaflets containing propaganda over the German lines. The Germans set up loud speakers, sometimes within sight of the allied forces, and broadcast their rendition of “The Capitulation Waltz” (aka propaganda). Churchill termed this the “Twilight War”; we know it better, at least here in North America, as the “Phony War”. This “Twilight War” was waged, or more accurately “not” waged, from September 1939 until May 1940. In a speech on January 27, 1940, Churchill would remark that what he often wondered was why England had as yet not been bombed from the air. Also during this speech he asked, “Ought we, instead of demonstrating the power of our Air Force by dropping leaflets all over Germany, to having dropped bombs?” [Churchill, Complete Speeches, vol. 6, pg.6187-88]. It is interesting that Churchill’s opinion that the correct option was that Britain should have taken the offensive was later supported by German General Siegfried Westphal. He said, “If the French had attacked in force in September 1939 the German Army could have only held out for one to two weeks.” At the time Britain and France had 110 Divisions in the field while Germany had only 23 Divisions. As a side note, the first Canadian troops arrived in England during this time period; Britain’s forces were on the increase.
It is here that I would like to remind the reader that both Chamberlain and Churchill wanted to avoid a land war in Europe as the memories of the First World War and its horrors were still fresh in the minds of their citizens. A clash, somewhere in France would quite possibly end up in a trench warfare stalemate similar to1914-18. This being the established facts I find it interesting indeed that Churchill should say later that Britain and France should have undertaken an action that was completely against what he, and France, believed in and, in fact enforced, at the time. Perhaps this was Churchill’s way of admitting that he had been wrong about avoiding a head on clash with the German Army on the continent in 1939.
One of the areas that Churchill thought as an alternative to Europe in which to engage the Germans was in the north, in particular, Norway. The British realized earlier that Norway and especially the port of Narvik was important to Germany due to the year around ice-free waters. This was necessary, as has been mentioned for the shipment of Swedish iron ore to Germany. Britain had already sewn the waters with mines and now it seemed appropriate, to Churchill, to actually invade and secure the country itself.
Chamberlain opposed this plan as he feared it would widen the war and in essence it was illegal. Churchill countered this opposition with the reasoning that if they succeeded it would deprive the Germans of the much needed iron ore and perhaps provoke them into making a rash move that would spell disaster for the Germans. The German admirals had debated the consequences of the loss of Norway. They felt that the war could very well be lost if the British were to seize Norway and in particular the port of Narvik.
As many secrets are prone to do the Churchill proposal leaked to the press; not in any great detail but enough to alert the German government to the, now, real threat. The Norwegian Government protested strongly to what amounted to a breach of international law by the British. It was March 1940 when Vidkun Quisling, the former War Minister for Norway, approached Hitler in regard to setting up a puppet government under the Germans. Up until this point there were no plans by Germany to invade Norway, of course this now changed.
I have read several accounts of this action over the years. Modern supporters of Churchill write that Britain had decided to come to the rescue of “poor little Norway” in peril of being over-run by German forces. Those who tend to be less enthusiastic about the man will write something to the effect, “despite Norway’s status as a neutral nation Churchill ignored that and planed an invasion”. I have also read that the British intercepted a German communiqué which informed them that the Germans were planning to invade Denmark and Norway. This is one of those times where I tend to believe all of the above, as in a sense they are all one and the same. The only difference is in the method the writer would like to use in order to lead you into thinking along the same lines as him or her. The one point that is clear, at least to me, is that Norway did indeed protest the laying of the mines in Norwegian waters [as reported in the New York Times, April 9, 1940]. The invasion of 11 April, 1940, on the other hand took place much too quickly to have offered the luxury of a diplomatic protest. The small British and French force landed around midnight but were totally unprepared to carry on the fight, lacking such things as mules for transport and even snowshoes necessary for moving through deep snow. The German air force hammered the allied invasion forcing them to retreat. As far as the ground troop actions were concerned this was a complete disaster; however the Royal Navy managed to inflict a crippling blow to the German Navy. The result was that Germany captured Norway, which lasted until 8 May, 1945; however they lost control of the Atlantic.
The plan was completely Churchill’s yet true to “Churchillian luck” the blame fell squarely on Chamberlain. Perhaps this lack of blame was the cause of Churchill’s obsession to recapture the port of Narvik. “Here it is we must fight and preserve on the largest scale possible”, he wrote to one of his naval commanders on 28 April, 1940. “He wanted to divert troops there from all over the place”, General Ironside noted in his diary. “He is so like a child in many ways. He tires of a thing, and then wants to hear no more of it. It is most extraordinary how mercurial he is.” [Edmond Ironside, Time Unguarded pg.278]
On 10 May, 1940 Churchill becomes Prime Minster with little time to celebrate as on that same day, eight months after Britain and France declared war on Germany, Hitler ordered his troops into Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and France, ending the “Twilight War”. France soon surrenders and Hitler turned his thoughts toward an invasion of Russia, which may have been one of the saving graces for the British and surviving French forces in France concerning what was about to unfold at the coastal towns of Calais and Dunkirk.
I think it worthy to note that the German advance was not without stiff resistance from the French troops stationed in the fortresses of the Maginot Line. This line of fortresses was built to stop the advance of any future German attack and we often hear that the Germans quickly destroyed these and moved on toward Dunkirk. I suppose this has been done to get back to the British story of the evacuation rather than an attempted to make the French Army’s resistance appear weak or half-hearted. Many French soldiers fought to the death attempting to hold back the German onslaught. It is true that some French strong points were knocked out more or less easily, however some proved impossible to destroy, at least in the timely fashion needed and were by-passed.
The Germans defeated the Maginot Line due to the lack of coordination between the French troops in the fortresses and those in the field. For the most part the individual fortresses fought in isolation against overwhelming odds. Another weakness was the lack of French anti-aircraft artillery. The one saving grace for the French was that the German dive bombers had a 60% rate in missing the fortresses completely. While the French were overwhelmed and surrendered many of the main fortresses remained intact and capable of continuing to fight. These were only surrendered after being ordered to do so by French General Georges one week after the French Army surrendered; and then only under protest by the officers commanding these fortresses. [“Maginot Line 1940” –M. Romanych & M. Rupp]
The relentless drive by the German troops through France left the British and French allies bottled up in a corridor to the sea by German Army Group B, to the east and Army Group A to the west. The allies fought a withdrawing action to the coastal town of Dunkirk while to the west the mainly British Garrison in Calais was under siege by the German forces. The garrison at Calais was to be sacrificed in order to buy time for the forces at Dunkirk to be evacuated. Churchill had written to the garrison commander, “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.” [Churchill, Their Finest Hour, pg. 79-82].
Churchill’s critics have called him a “killer of men”; however any wartime leader must make decisions that are less than desirable. Even the greatest of generals throughout history were “killers of men”, including their own men, due to the choices that the times dictated that they must make.
Meanwhile the German forces outside Dunkirk were given an order to “stand down” for three days. It is unclear as to where this order originated; however, it is usually assumed it came from Hitler himself, the reasons have never been clear. Regardless of where the order came from, or even why, what it provided was time for the allied troops to prepare for evacuation. It has also been debated as to whether the sacrifice of the troops at Calais had any positive bearing on the evacuation of Dunkirk. The one thing that cannot be debated is that the holding action at Calais tied up a whole Panzer Division that otherwise may have been deployed at Dunkirk.
Another aspect that is missing in the documentaries and in most books on the subject is in regard to the German Navy. We know that the German Army and Air Force were employed in this action but where was the German Navy. One would think that this arm of the German forces would have or should have played a decisive role in preventing the evacuation of 192,000 allied personnel, 144,000 being British, by 4 June 1940. The answer is actually pretty clear; remember Narvik and the Battle of Norway? Churchill’s failure on land was a success on the seas with the German Navy in no shape to interfere with the Dunkirk evacuation. In addition to this 250,000 German troops were stationed in Norway for the duration of the war to assure there would be no further attempts to invade. A quarter of a million German troops taken out of the equation by Churchill’s fortunate blunder (Churchillian luck).
On 18 June, 1940 Churchill said, “The Battle of France is over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” It did, less than a month later on 10 July, 1940.
Next month, the Battle of Britain.