‘Ribbentrop’s War’ – The Assault on the West:
After the defeat of Poland, Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but bad weather prevented it, and both sides sat through a winter of ‘phoney war.’ For this reason and with some justice, the Second World War has been called ‘Ribbentrop’s war.’ Although the German Foreign Minister’s name is primarily associated with the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Ribbentrop was more concerned with the defeat of the Western powers. The German armed forces began their assault on 10th May, and on 21st June, an armistice was signed, signifying the fall of France. Hitler was unsure about how to proceed once the historic enemy was defeated, making a half-hearted offer of peace to Britain on German terms in a Reichstag speech on 19th July, but he got no response. But even before the ‘peace offer’, he had ordered preparations for the invasion of Britain. Ribbentrop and Hitler’s shared objective remained the same as it had been in 1937: the restoration of the reign of Edward VIII to lead a pro-Nazi puppet régime in Britain. As with the conquests in central Europe, they hoped to achieve this without firing a shot, but when Churchill succeeded Chamberlain in May 1940, Hitler soon realised that they would need to prepare for a full-scale invasion by air and sea.
Churchill’s Return from the Wilderness & Ascent to Power:
On the day that war was declared, Chamberlain, still in charge of a wholly Conservative government, bowed to public opinion, and a campaign led by the anti-appeasement newspapers, in particular the staunchly Tory Daily Telegraph, by offering the post of First Lord of the Admiralty to Churchill. Famously, the Admiralty then signalled the fleet, ‘Winston is back!’ His first instinct, formulated almost immediately, was to blockade Norwegian territorial waters and deprive the Germans of the Swedish magnetite iron ore that they needed for their munitions programmes. He didn’t seem to care that this would violate Swedish and Norwegian neutrality. Had the operation worked, that fact might have been overlooked, but nothing did work as planned.
Instead of holding the Germans at bay, the operation launched in April 1940, after many delays, gave Hitler the excuse for the pre-emptive strike he had already planned. As the mining of Norwegian waters had been fatally held up by one of Churchill’s flying trips to Paris to persuade the French to embrace the plan, a modest German force was enabled to establish itself by 7th April, and then, embarrassingly, to frustrate British attempts at a landing. When Allied troops eventually landed in Norway in an attempt to defend the country, it was too late. By the end of the month, the southern areas were in German hands. The phoney war had come to a sudden and dramatic end. Churchill had also seriously underestimated the exposure of battlecruisers to attack from the air. The whole operation turned into a wretched mess and by June the only substantial British bridgehead, at Narvik, had to be abandoned. The Allies had been forced to evacuate the north and on the ninth Norwegian forces laid down their arms.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill might have been expected to take the lion’s share of the blame, yet somehow, amazingly, he escaped this. This may have been, in part, because Churchill had begun to broadcast on the radio and thereby, had begun to establish the ‘persona’ that was to boost public morale so powerfully. He was already seen as honest, resolute and intensely engaged. However, he was still not popular with most of the Tory MPs in the Commons, and even less popular with Labour members, many of whom had memories stretching back to the General Strike and even to the Tonypandy ‘riots’. Some of his speeches in the House seemed, even to allies like Harold Nicolson, stilted and bumbling, taking refuge in oratory when what was needed was clear information. In the country, however, the contrast between Churchill and Chamberlain was becoming sharper, not least because Chamberlain, having been forced to declare war, was becoming ill, and never seemed to rouse himself from the personal defeat inflicted on him. Churchill, on the other hand, who had argued for armed resistance to the Third Reich since 1936, now felt vindicated and determined. He later summed up the public and parliamentary mood at that time:
‘The stroke of catastrophe and the spur of peril were needed to were needed to call forth the dormant might of the British nation. … The many disappointments and disasters of the brief campaign in Norway caused profound perturbation at home, and the currents of passion mounted even in the breats of those who had been most slothful and purblind in the years before the war.
By the time the Norway fiasco was debated in the House of Commons on 7th May, the Labour opposition was completely disaffected with Chamberlain’s ‘leadership’. The Nazis’ successes in Scandinavia brought the long-running pressure on him to a head. When the Opposition asked for a debate on the Norway situation, its leader, Clement Attlee said:
“It is not just Norway. … Norway comes as the culmination of many discontents. People are asking why those mainly responsible for the conduct of affairs are men who have had an almost uninterrupted career of failure.”
Suddenly a slightly sticky parliamentary statement, which Chamberlain had thought unnecessary in the first place, developed into a court martial of the government for dereliction of duty. Churchill described the scene:
… One speaker after another from both sides of the House attacked the Government, and especially its chief, with unusual bitterness and vehemence. …W. S. Churchill (1948), The Gathering Storm, Cassell (Penguin edn. 1960), pp 572-3.
Churchill himself remained steadfastly loyal to the government, but his ‘old gang’ were ready to move. Leo Amery, normally one of the quieter anti-appeasers, concluded his speech, in which he said that ‘we are fighting today for our liberty… we cannot go on being led as we are,’ by invoking Oliver Cromwell’s famous dismissal of the Rump of the Long Parliament when he said:
You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!
The Labour front bench decided to divide the House, simply on a motion to adjourn. Forty-one Tories abstained and when the roll was called, it was discovered that the government’s majority had dropped to eighty-one. Shouts of ‘Go! Go! Go!’ hounded Chamberlain as he left the House. One Tory MP began singing ‘Rule Britannia’ very loudly. A growing number of Tories (though still a minority) made an approach to see if Labour would be receptive to the idea of a national wartime coalition. The Labour leadership then made it clear that the condition of it serving in a national war coalition was that it would not be led by Chamberlain.
On 10th May, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, wrote in his diary that the day had been perhaps the darkest day in English history. His private telephone had rung while he was still asleep, with the news that Holland and Belgium had been invaded, that bombs were falling on Brussels and parachutists on The Hague. Channon wrote that it was:
‘Another of Hitler’s brilliantly conceived coups, and of course he seized on the psycological moment when England is politically divided, and the ruling caste riddled with with dissension and anger. He surely heard of Wednesday’s debate and the fatal division yesterday, and at once acted upon them. … ‘Now the drama begins; the Chamberlains returned to No. 10 and… a message came from the Labour people that they would join a Government, but refused to serve under Chamberlain. …’Sir Henry Channon (1967), Diaries, edited by Robert James, pp. 244-50.
Only two serious candidates were possible, Halifax and Churchill, but Labour did not specify a preference. In his (1948) book, The Gathering Storm, Churchill recalled the course of the following events of that day:
‘At eleven o’clock I was … summoned to Downing Street by the Prime Minister. There I found Lord Halifax. (Chamberlain) … told us … that it was beyond his power to form a National Government. The response from the … Labour leaders left him in no doubt of this. The question was therefore whom he should advise the King to send for…’
There was a very long pause before Halifax said that his peerage would make it impossible for him to take the post. He meant that it would be difficult for him to control his party from the House of Lords, or to run the government as a peer. But a solution could have easily been found to that particular problem. It would have been possible for him to find a seat in the House of Commons as soon as one became available, through a by-election. In reality, he had no stomach for facing the firing line of discontented Tory and Labour MPs on the back benches. Also, with western Europe on the point of being overrun, he felt that to accept the premiership would be tantamount to political suicide.
So when Chamberlain went to the Palace later that day and George VI asked him whom he should send for, the King may have been surprised to hear that it was not the ‘good egg’, the sound Lord Halifax whom both he and the Queen liked and who had been a shooting regular at Balmoral. Churchill’s narrative continues:
‘Presently a message arrived summoning me to the Palace at six o’clock. …
‘His Majesty received me and most graciously … He looked at me searchingly and quizzically for some moments, and then said “I suppose you know why I have sent for you?” Adopting his mood, I replied “Sir, I simply couln’t imagine why.” He laughed and said, “I want you to form a Government.” I said I would certainly do so. …
‘Thus… at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief powers of the State, which… I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, …
At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. … My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. …W. S. Churchill (1948), The Gathering Storm, Cassell (Penguin edn. 1960), pp 582-5, 587-9.
So it was Churchill who kissed the King’s hands on the afternoon of the 10th of May. The premiership could not have come to him at a more testing time, since the Germans had invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Nazis soon tightened their grip. On Whit Monday, 13th May, at five o’clock in the morning, King George was woken to take a call from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands asking for help and, if necessary, asylum in Britain for her government-in-exile. She urgently begged him to send more aircraft to defend her beleaguered country. It was too late; a few hours afterwards the Queen’s daughter Princess Juliana, her German-born husband and their two young daughters arrived in England. Later that day, Wilhelmina was on the phone with the King again, this time from Harwich, to which she had travelled on a British destroyer after fleeing German attempts to capture her and take her hostage. Her aim was initially to go back and join Dutch forces in Zeeland who were still resisting, but the military situation had deteriorated so rapidly that everyone thought a return was impossible. On 15 May her army capitulated in the face of the German Blitzkrieg. Wilhelmina remained in Buckingham Palace, from where she attempted to rally Dutch resistance at a distance.
Meanwhile, Churchill went to the Commons to deliver a short speech, shocking in its quiet, truthful sobriety, its absolute moral clarity and its defiant optimism:
“I would say to the House, as I have said to those who have joined the Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering.’ You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give to 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 with one word: It is 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.”
The cheers for this famous speech came overwhelmingly from the Labour benches, who now regarded Churchill as their prime minister. Chamberlain had been damaged by his failure to win the trust of the trade unions, no longer an issue since Ernest Bevin was now at the Ministry of Labour and Herbert Morrison was also in the small war cabinet together with Greenwood and Attlee. Churchill’s Commons speech was repeated on radio and, together with his broadcast of 19th May steeling the public for a battle ahead ‘for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means,’ irreversibly changed the way the country felt about him. Many years later, Clement Attlee wrote that, if someone asked him, “What exactly did Winston do to win the war?” he would reply, “talk about it.”
Guarding the Country’s Moat:
Not least, Churchill and his government gave the British people something to do after the long period of seven months of the ‘Phoney War.’ As early as October 1939 he had suggested that a Home Guard of half a million men ought to be formed, to release the armed services from their routine sentry and patrol work. The day after the blood, toil, tears and sweat speech on 14th May, Anthony Eden announced the formation of a Local Defence Volunteer Force (LDV) for men between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five. Within twenty-four hours, a quarter of a million had come forward and by mid-1943 there were some 1.75 million men in the Home Guard, organised in 1100 battalions. In 1940 they had drilled in bowler hats and cheese-cutter cloth caps, carrying an old fowling gun or a Lee-Enfield left over from the Indian mutiny; three years later they were more or less uniformed and equipped with usable if not bang up-to-date weapons.
It was also Churchill’s ‘monumental impatience’, especially after George VI had appointed him prime minister when he invented the post of minister of defence for himself immediately afterwards, that was exactly what the country needed. He attached red ‘Action This Day’ labels to documents he considered urgent, and he got what he wanted. Now he was about to wield ‘power more durable than that of a great king.’ But, as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg on the West unfolded, would it be enough to stop it? Even what Andrew Roberts (2009), one of his many biographers, describes as Churchill’s preternatural eloquence and world-historical sense, as well as a self-belief that bordered on the messianic, might not prove enough from the perspective of many members of his newly-constructed war cabinet. With the gift of a skilled historian’s hindsight, Roberts is able to show how events had brought to the fore in Britain a leader who could frame the global struggle in profoundly moving, almost metaphysical terms, but most of Churchill’s ministers did not know him well, nor did they have his optimism and vision. Violet Bonham-Carter did know him well, hence the title of her 1965 book, Winston Churchill As I Knew Him:
He was intellectually quite uninhibited and unselfconscious. Nothing to him was trite. The whole world of thought was virgin soil. He did not seem to be the least ashamed of uttering truths so simple and eternal that on another’s lips they would be truisms. This was a precious gift he never lost. Nor was he afraid of using splendid language. Even as I listened glowing and vibrating to his words, I knew that many … friends could label them as ‘bombastic’ – ‘rhetoric’ – ‘heroics’. But I also knew with certainty that if they did they would be wrong. There was nothing false, inflated, artificial in his eloquence. It was his natural idiom. His world was built and fashioned in heroic lines. He spoke its language.Violet Bonham-Carter (1965), p. 18.
The King’s Empire Day Speech:
At nine o’clock in the evening on Friday 24th May, cinemas across Britain shut down their programmes; crowds of people began to gather outside radio shops and a hush fell over clubs and hotel lounges. Millions more were gathered around their radios at home as the King prepared to make his first broadcast to the nation since his Christmas message from Sandringham. Lasting twelve and a half minutes, it was also to be his longest, and a major test of all the hours he had spent with Lionel Logue, his speech therapist for the past twelve years. The occasion was Empire Day, which during wartime gained additional resonance from the huge contribution being made by many thousands of people across the Empire to the war against Hitler in Europe. Appropriately, the King’s words were to be heard at the end of a programme called Brothers in Arms. Featuring men and women born and brought up overseas, the programme, the BBC claimed, would demonstrate in no uncertain fashion the unity and strength of which Empire Day is the symbol. At that point in the war, Britain needed all the help it could get from the Empire.
It was therefore against the backdrop of the dramatic setbacks in western Europe that Logue was called at 11 a.m. on 21st May by Alec Hardinge and asked to go and see the King at 4 p.m. He arrived a quarter of an hour early to find the King’s private secretary worrying over yet more bad news from the Continent. Continuing their Blitzkrieg across France, the German Army had entered Abbeville, which meant they were at the mouth of the Somme and only fifteen miles from the Channel, cutting the Allied armies in two. The future of the British Expeditionary Force, which had been deployed mainly along the Franco-Belgian border since it had been sent out at the beginning of the war, was looking bleak. Despite the gravity of the situation, the King was in a cheerful mood when Logue was called up to see him. He was standing on the balcony, wearing his military uniform. But his hair was greying around the temples, a sign that the strain of war was beginning to take its toll.
Logue was impressed by the text of the Empire Day speech, which he thought was outstanding and beautifully written, but they nevertheless went through it together, making some alterations. As they were doing so a second time, the Queen entered, dressed in powder grey. While the King was writing out the alterations, he talked to Logue about the wonderful efforts the Royal Air Force was making, and “how proud one should be of the boys from Australia, Canada and New Zealand.” On Empire Day, Logue went to the Palace after dinner and, together with the BBC’s Wood and Ogilvie, made sure the room had been properly equipped for the broadcast. In case of air raids, they had run a cable down into the dugout so that the broadcast could still go on. The King and Logue went to the broadcasting room which, to Logue’s relief, was pleasantly cool: he had left instructions that the windows should be left open to prevent a repeat of the previous day’s disaster when the unfortunate Queen Wilhelmina made a lunchtime broadcast to the Dutch colonies and the room had been hot and stuffy.
A minute before he was due to begin speaking, the King stared out of the open window into the failing light. It was a beautiful spring evening and perfectly peaceful. Logue thought it ‘hard to believe that within a hundred miles of us, men were killing each other.’ Then the red studio light flashed four times and the King began:
‘On Empire Day last year I spoke to you, the peoples of the Empire, from Winnipeg, in the heart of Canada. We were at peace. … I spoke of the ideals of freedom, justice and peace upon which our Commonwealth of Free Peoples is founded. The clouds were gathering, but I held fast to the hope that those ideals might yet achieve a fuller and richer development without suffering the grievous onslaught of war. But it was not to be … It is now no mere territorial conquest that our enemies are seeking; it is the overthrow, complete and final, of this Empire and everything for which it stands and, after that, the conquest of the world…’
There was nothing for Logue to do but just stand and listen, marvelling at the King’s voice. When he had spoken his last words, Logue just gripped his hands; both men knew it had been a superb effort. The King was relieved that, despite the fluidity of the military situation, he had not been obliged to make major last-minute changes to the text. That evening, he wrote in his diary:
‘I was fearful that something might happen to make me have to alter it. … I was pleased with the way I delivered it, & it was easily my best effort. How I hate broadcasting.’Wheeler-Bennett, op.cit. p. 449.
The next morning, The Daily Telegraph called the speech a vigorous and inspiring broadcast, adding that reports last night indicated that every word was heard with perfect clarity throughout the United States and in distant parts of the Empire. The reaction to his message from the Empire and beyond had also been enthusiastic. But it would take more than speeches, however fine, either from King George or Churchill, to turn the tide of a war that was rushing into the Allied forces on the Continent.
The Road to Dunkirk & Operation Dynamo:
Belgium was now on the point of surrendering. King Léopold III, who was commander-in-chief of his country’s forces, had hoped to fight on, in support of the Allied cause, emulating the heroic example of his father, King Albert, during the First World War. But the situation this time was very different, and on 25th May, convinced that further resistance was hopeless, Léopold surrendered. Controversially, he chose to stay with his people rather than accompany his ministers to France where they attempted to continue to operate as a government-in-exile. His apparent capitulation led to his vilification in the British press, perhaps unfairly, divisions in his own country and his eventual abdication after the war. The British fury at Léopold’s capitulation was due in large part to the damaging effect it had on the Allied forces, whose left flank was now entirely exposed and who now had to fall back to the Channel coast in France.
The British Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, cast his mind back to his talks with Ribbentrop in 1937. Then, the offer had come from Berlin to leave Britain and its empire, both of them apparently so admired by Hitler, alone in return for a ‘free hand’ in the east. Suppose now, thought Halifax, that the offer, or something like it, was still on the table, this time in return for accepting the status quo in western Europe and whatever it was that the Germans wanted to do in those faraway countries? Revisionist historians have also wondered, given Britain’s dependence on the United States after 1940, whether, since Churchill claimed so vehemently that he wanted to save the Empire, he should not have taken whatever deal he could have got in May 1940.
But co-existence with Hitler would not have saved the Empire, which was already falling apart for its own internal reasons. The subsequent experience of Vichy France and other occupied countries hardly suggests that the limited autonomy granted to vassal states would have been respected, especially when it came to matters of handing over the Jews, the great point of it all for Hitler. This, too, Churchill felt in his marrow. On 27th May, under increasing pressure, Churchill did waver just a little, to the point of not ruling out any German offer on the basis of accepting the status quo in eastern Europe in return for some kind of German withdrawal from occupied countries in the west. But the following day the capitulation of Belgium had put the British force in France in an even more perilous position. At the full Cabinet meeting on 28th May, Halifax’s suggestion of using Italy or the USA to make a ‘grovelling appeal’ was roundly rejected.
This all took place, at the end of May 1940, against the backdrop of British troops in France retreating rapidly towards Dunkirk, or trapped on the beaches and jetties there already. The only solution was to mount a rescue in what was to be one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. In his official report, later published in a Supplement to the London Gazette in July 1947, Vice-Admiral Ramsay of Dover Command described how on Sunday 26th May, he was informed by the Admiralty that:
‘The military situation had deteriorated so rapidly that… it was imperative for Dynamo to be implemented with the greatest vigour, with a view to lifting forty-five thousand of the BEF within two days, at the end of which it was probable that evacuation would be terminated by enemy action…’
The Admiralty then ordered the ‘Operation Dynamo’ to commence at 18:57. On 27th May the first of a flotilla of around seven to eight hundred merchant marine boats, fishing boats (both shrimpers and smacks), pleasure craft, Royal National Lifeboats, ferries and tugs began to evacuate British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk. In addition, scores of pulling boats, merchant ship lifeboats, Naval cutters and whalers were sent off in tow. Only a minority of these made it to the Flanders Coast to take an active part in the evacuation. Nevertheless, these small craft, in conjunction with the pulling and power boats of HM ships off the coast were responsible for lifting more than a thousand Allied troops off a stretch of open beach in shoal waters. Ramsay continued to describe how throughout the evacuation:
‘… all these craft of the inshore flotillas were subjected at one time or another to intense attack from the air, both by bombing and machine guns, and a large proportion also to sporadic bombardment by German artillery. Under this fire, no case occurred of boats ceasing to work as long as troops were in sight on shore, and movements of boats westward away from the fire zone only occurred as dictated by the military situation ashore. …’
The following Sunday, 2nd June, at 23:30 ‘SNO Dunkirk,’ reported that the evacuation had been completed.
By the ninth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers, both British and French, had been rescued. On 4th June, immediately following the evacuation, Churchill made one of the most memorable speeches of the war. He told the House of Commons:
“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, …”
‘Dunkirk Spirit’ & The Fall of France:
He went on, famously, to vow, on behalf of the nation, that Britons would fight the Nazis on the beaches. For many ordinary people, what became known as the Dunkirk Spirit perfectly described the will of the British people to pull together at times of national emergencies and adversity. Yet, however great the heroism and however remarkable some of the escapes, there was no disguising the fact that this was no victory. In private, Churchill told his ministers that Dunkirk was ‘the greatest British military defeat for many centuries.’ In fact, most of the five great speeches of 1940 had little good to report except the raw fact of survival, and when, as in the speech made after Dunkirk, there seemed to be something to feel relatively happy about, Churchill was quick to guard against premature self-congratulation.
He also said, on 4th June, ‘wars are not won by evacuations,’ and was careful to enumerate just how many men had been lost in France – thirty thousand – and how much equipment had been left behind. But it was true that after Dunkirk and the great ‘we shall never surrender’ speech to the nation, there was no longer any prospect of a British Vichy. And the bonus was that instead of the fifty thousand men the government thought might survive Dunkirk, nearly two hundred thousand British soldiers had been rescued along with nearly a hundred and forty thousand French troops. For some reason (perhaps out of generosity), even in his memoirs, Churchill preferred to conceal what had actually happened in the war cabinet and the behaviour of Chamberlain and Halifax, preferring instead to write of a ‘white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.’
Throughout the summer, the bad news kept on coming. On 14th June, Paris was occupied by the German Wehrmacht and then, three days later, Marshal Philippe Pétain (Head of State with extraordinary powers) announced that France would ask Germany for an armistice on 21st June. At Hitler’s insistence, it was signed in the railway car at Compiégne where Germany had sued for peace in 1918. Myrtle Logue heard the news of Pétain’s capitulation from a disgusted London bus driver who proclaimed to the entire world what he would do to the entire French nation. She commented in her war diary:
Surely now, there is nobody left who can rat on us. We are all really alone, and if our government gives up there will be a revolution, and I am in it.
For all its lack of logic, this view that fighting on without Continental allies was almost a relief was widely held in Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940. The journalist, playwright and writer of English Journey, published in Leipzig in 1933, remembered it as a mood of ‘We’re by ourselves now and really we can get on with this war.’ The King himself shared this view, telling his mother at the end of June:
‘Personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper.’Sarah Bradford (1989), King George VI, p. 320.
What Harold Nicolson described as Ribbentrop’s ‘champagne-like influence’ on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor appeared to come to the fore once again when France collapsed from May to June 1940. On active service with the British army, though demoted from Field Marshal to Major-General, Edward fled to the south of France after the debácle and from there to Spain and then on to Lisbon. By then, and following his well-publicised visit to the Berghof in October 1937, his views were well-known. Like some in Whitehall, he too favoured a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany. The Nazis were also well aware of this. They plotted to keep him in Europe, with Ribbentrop at the German Foreign Ministry’s centre of manoeuvrings. Victim to their own fantasies, they most likely hoped to reinstate him as King once they had conquered Britain. However far-fetched a prospect this might seem to us now, Churchill refused to allow the Duke back into England, dispatching himself instead to the Bahamas as Governor, where he remained, out of harm’s way, until 1945.
Operation Sea Lion & The Battle for Britain:
Hitler believed that with the defeat of France, Britain would also seek an armistice. However, Hitler had already ordered plans for the German invasion of the country. When Churchill expressed the nation’s determination to fight on, the Führer decided to launch Operation Seewölle (Sea Lion), the seaborn invasion of Britain. On 16 July, he issued Führer Directive 16 declaring that:
‘As England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, still shows no signs of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English Motherland as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued.’
For Hitler’s aim to be achieved, control of the English Channel had to be achieved by sweeping away the mines and keeping the Royal Navy fleets in the Mediterranean and the North Sea from intervening. These two objectives might prove relatively easy to achieve, but the High Command of the German Army and Navy regarded the operation with considerable misgivings. The plan had few supporters inside the German military hierarchy, and on 13th August General Jodl, the army’s Chief of Operations Staff had written it was an assault that could only be launched out of desperation. Although Reichsmarchall Hermann Göring appeared more enthusiastic, the Air Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe viewed the campaign as almost impossible. The destruction of the RAF was a vital prerequisite for a successful invasion, and Göring was eager to prove that the Luftwaffe, unaided, could bring Britain to its knees. The Luftwaffe was, however, a short-range airforce designed primarily for tactical operations in support of the army, and it was ill-prepared for long strategic battles in enemy skies. Göring’s chance, therefore, lay in a sharp, decisive onslaught which would overwhelm the RAF’s defences and destroy its airfields and support services.
In July 1940, Göring assembled over 2,800 aircraft organised in three Luftflotten (air fleets), each of which was a self-contained airforce allocated to a specific area of operations, based in north-eastern France and the Low Countries, the remainder of occupied France, and Norway. Such dispersion of force required finely tuned cooperation for an effective campaign against the RAF. Although German bombers mounted night raids against land targets in Britain from the end of the first week in June, the Battle of Britain only began officially on 10th July with the commencement of daylight raids against south-coast ports and merchant shipping. Winston Churchill marked the beginning of the Battle with the following words:
‘… 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 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 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 still say, “This was their finest hour.”…’W. S. Churchill, (1941) Into Battle. Cassell, p. 234.
Altogether, 217 German aircraft were lost between 10th July and 10th August, as against 96 by the RAF. The coastal attacks were merely the forerunner to the decisive battle for air superiority over Britain which the Luftwaffe had to fight and win if Operation Sea Lion was to succeed.
The invasion plan was set to go into action on 25th August as long as British airpower could be neutralised. An aerial assault was ordered on England in preparation. The Alderangriff (‘Eagle Offensive’) was launched with Adlertag (‘Eagle Day’) attacks on RAF stations throughout the southeast of England on 13th August when 1,485 sorties were flown; repeated on 15th August with 1,786 sorties; then continued in desperation into September.
Last Hope Island – The Battle of Britain:
The German planners had allowed four days for the destruction of Fighter Command’s resources in southern England, and four weeks for the defeat of the entire RAF. Yet four weeks after Adlertag the RAF’s fighters were still rising to meet the Luftwaffe’s major raids. Despite the fact that the Luftwaffe was putting over a thousand planes into the air every day, Fighter Command was losing aircraft at a rate which, with the number of new planes being produced, it could maintain for some time. Where it was dangerously weakened was in the number of pilots available for operations. Between 8 and 18 August, 154 fighter pilots were lost, and only 63 replacements arrived from the training schools. Yet neither this initial aerial assault – in which the Luftwaffe lost about forty-seven aircraft – nor subsequent attacks succeeded in destroying the RAF, which used a chain of recently constructed radar stations to gain warning of approaching Luftwaffe squadrons and so deploy its response more effectively.
By the time the air assault was diverted to the strategic bombing of cities such as London, beginning the Blitz, on 10th October, the Germans had lost over 1,600 aircraft and had never come close to achieving command of the air. The loss of this air war, the Battle of Britain, was a fatal blow to Sea Lion. The final stage of the plan was that two armies of a hundred thousand men would land on the coasts of southern England and drive to London. It was difficult enough that the plans called for an initial landing of the first wave of 67,000 troops and a second wave of 71,000 within two days, and that the lack of specialist landing craft had meant the commandeering of around 2,400 river barges from throughout occupied Europe. To transport the Armies across the Channel under close air attack would invite a massacre. The plans were gradually pared down from a broad front attack on the area between Ramsgate and the Isle of Wight to a much tighter front focusing on the coast from Eastbourne to Folkestone, with an airborne attack intended to seize Dover, as shown on the map below.
The Luftwaffe had suffered heavy losses in the initial attacks and, in an attempt to achieve a final breakthrough, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to London. By attacking the British capital the Germans hoped to draw Fighter Command into a final battle of annihilation, while at the same time breaking civilian morale and paralysing the machinery of government. The bombing of London was also in revenge for RAF Bomber Command’s raids on Berlin, an attack that Göring had said could never occur.
In the late afternoon of 7th September, nine hundred German aircraft crossed the English coast headed for London. The fighter defences, expecting the customary raids on the sector stations, were unprepared for this change of target and the German bombers were able to deliver their load of high explosives and incendiaries against little opposition. That night a further 250 bombers arrived over the capital and Londoners experienced their first taste of the terror which was to become known as ‘the Blitz.’ During the day Britain’s anti-invasion forces had been ordered to Alert 1: ‘invasion imminent, and probable within twelve hours,’ and as London burned through the night the code-word ‘Cromwell’ was flashed to the Home Forces bringing them to immediate readiness. At sea, the Royal Navy waited to intercept the invasion fleet while the Bomber Command attacked the French and Belgian ports from which that fleet might sail.
Over the next few days the Luftwaffe launched repeated raids on London, but Fighter Command was waiting and its aircraft harried and its aircraft harried the German bombers to and from their targets. Only at night was the Luftwaffe able to achieve significant results. On 15th September, nearly a thousand aircraft were dispatched against London, in a day of combat which was to prove the climax of the Battle of Britain. Churchill noted, like the battle of Waterloo, it fell on a Sunday.
It started with a large raid on London of a hundred bombers and four hundred fighters but ended with fifty-six German planes shot down at the cost of twenty-six RAF (some accounts have sixty-one to twenty-nine). Squadron after squadron of British fighters was sent into the air to meet this attack and when Churchill, who was visiting 11 Group’s Operation Room at Uxbridge, asked for details of reserves, he was told ‘there are none.’ However, the battle went decisively in the RAF’s favour.
One pilot, Richard Hillary, writing in 1952, described his battle in a squadron of eight machines, heading south-east at about twelve thousand feet when they encountered a squadron of Messerschmidts:
… we came up through the clouds: I looked down and saw them spread out below me like layers of whipped cream. The sun was brilliant and made it difficult to see even the next plane when turning. I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us a warning of at least fifty enemy approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 or 1,000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. I remember cursing and going automatically into line astern: the next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself. As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets.
One Messerschmidt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was weaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the airscrew. The, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for – a Messerschmidt climbing away from the sun. I closed in to two hundred yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight.’Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy (1952), p. 2.
Although the numbers were minute by comparison with later air battles, in 1940 they were unsustainably large for the Luftwaffe. During the entire Battle of Britain, Fighter Command lost over five hundred airmen killed, from fourteen nationalities, and five hundred wounded, but for the total loss of 915 aircraft, they destroyed 1733 German planes.
After the 15th of September, now remembered as Battle of Britain Day, morale in the Luftwaffe plummeted with their planes. Colonel Adolf Galland complained of the mismanagement of the situation by the Command and its unjustified accusations, which had a demoralising effect on its fighter pilots: ‘We saw one comrade after the other, old and tested brothers in combat, vanish from our ranks.’ When the much decorated ‘ace’, who had just shot down his fortieth plane over the Thames estuary on 24th was asked by Göring what he needed for the battle, he answered, “an outfit of Spitfires for my group.” The Reichsmarshcall ‘stamped off, growling as he went.’ Among all the praise given to the Allied pilots who preserved Britain and the free world from Nazi conquest, there has been no more eloquent tribute than the one paid by Winston Churchill:
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Colonel Galland also readily admitted that the bravery of the British pilots had ‘undoubtedly saved their country at this crucial hour.’ Another aspect in which Britain did not stand alone in 1940-41 was the vital help afforded it by foreign pilots. Of the nearly three thousand pilots who fought with Fighter Command during the battle of Britain, one-fifth were from occupied European and Commonwealth countries. Statistically, the most successful unit in the battle was the 303 Squadron, composed of Polish fighters. Together with the Czechs, they were particularly ruthless pilots, their fanaticism fuelled by what their countries were suffering under German occupation and what faced them if Britain, which they dubbed ‘the island of last hope’ in Polish, were to be invaded.
In fact, however, the ‘few’ were not all that few at all. In mid-August, when the battle of Britain began to be intense, the RAF actually had a little over a thousand fighter planes, more than matching the number available to the Luftwaffe. Even by the end of the first week in September, when the Germans thought they had disposed of all but a hundred or so fighters and were therefore close to fulfilling the first ‘Sea Lion’ objective, the RAF actually had 736 available with another 256 waiting to be made operational. The Germans also suffered from other disadvantages. Aircraft for aircraft, there was nothing in the Luftwaffe that could beat the eight-gun British Spitfire for speed, manoeuvrability and firepower, at least at twenty thousand feet and below. By having to protect bombers, German fighters lost the tactical flexibility they would have had if they had been allowed to roam freely, and their distance from the base meant their operational time was severely limited.
With ‘Sea Lion’ scheduled for 15th September, on the 14th a planning meeting put back the seaborne invasion still further until 21st September. Hitler told the Führer-conference on the 14th that a ‘successful landing followed by occupation would end the war in short order. Britain would starve to death.’ But for even the date of the 21st to be feasible the RAF had to be eliminated by the 11th. When this hadn’t happened, on the 17th Hitler ordered that the invasion fleet be dispersed as it was suffering unacceptable losses. ‘Sea Lion’ had been postponed indefinitely. On 18th September, an RAF attack on Dunkirk destroyed twenty-six barges. By 12th October, Hitler had ordered that the troops originally earmarked for Operation Sea Lion be released for other fronts. Sea Lion was now effectively dead, though Hitler only finally ordered a stop to further planning on 23rd September 1941.
Britain would not be divided into six military-economic zones, as the political annexe to Sea Lion had called for, with a German military government at Blenheim Palace (a deliberate snub to Winston Churchill, whose birthplace and ancestral home it was). Nor would the Gestapo sweep in and arrest any of the 2,820 people (politicians, trade unionists and army officers) deemed most dangerous to the occupation. Above all, there would be no installation of a Quisling régime headed by a compliant fascist like Oswald Mosley under a reinstated King Edward VIII. That such plans had existed, however, was sobering enough, and that they had failed was in large part due to the staunch resistance offered by ‘the few’ RAF pilots.
The Blitz, September 1940 – May 1941:
But the Luftwaffe’s attack continued with day and night raids on London and other important cities. The Blitz continued until May 1941 and nearly ninety thousand civilians were killed or injured by the Luftwaffe. In the two months between 7th September and 13th November, there was only one night on which London escaped the bombing, and each raid consisted of up to three hundred aircraft. The fourth phase of the battle thus began in the late afternoon of Saturday 7th November, with a massive raid on London’s docklands (see the picture above). Three hundred tons of bombs were dropped by 350 bombers, protected by 350 fighters. One fireman told his central command station:
“Send all the pumps you’ve got. The whole bloody world’s on fire.”
Because it was at high tide, the Thames was low and water correspondingly hard to pump, and burning petrol, sugar and rum from destroyed warehouses set the river alight. It was the first and the worst attack of the eight-month Blitz on London, and it has been estimated that the inferno of that single day caused more damage than the Great Fire of London of 1666. That night, from about 8.30 p.m. to 4 a.m., the Luftwaffe returned with a further 247 aircraft, to drop 352 tons of high explosive and 440 incendiary canisters. The valour of the fireman was ably recaptured by the Humphrey Jennings movie Fires Were Started (1943), and the heroism of the bomb-disposal units also inspires awe. The raid was so heavy that the Home Guard convinced itself that the invasion was underway and sent the codeword ‘Cromwell’ to mobilise all troops and ring the church bells as a warning tocsin. Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s personal assistant, Flight Lieutenant Robert Wright, later recalled:
‘The Germans launched the heaviest raid we had ever known, but the attack didn’t go to the airfields, it went to London. So we were able to pull ourselves together, repair things, and, most important of the lot, it gave the the pilots more of a chance for a little rest.’
Bomb craters were filled in on runways, planes were prepared in hangars not now under immediate threat of bombing, and control and communication lines that had been damaged over the previous fortnight were put back into operation. In a short period, the hitherto heavily pressed RAF was fully restored on almost all its most important bases and received more planes from the factories than it could fill with pilots. The RAF had more fighters operational at the end of the battle of Britain – despite the high attrition rates – than at the beginning.
Mid-September 1940 saw bombs fall on Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the House of Lords, the Law Courts and eight Wren churches. Whereas Hitler never visited an air base or bomb site at any point in the war, probably fearful of being publicly connected to failure, Churchill, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth regularly did so and were often cheered there, although Churchill was at least once booed by those whom the local authorities had failed to re-house quickly enough. The same thing happened to the king and queen when they visited Stepney (see the photo of bomb damage below) for the first time, according to Harold Nicolson. That was precisely why, after Buckingham Palace had taken its first hit on 14th September, it meant so much for Queen Elizabeth to be able to “look the East Enders in the face.”
Buckingham Palace was also hit several times that September during a daring daylight raid when both the King and Queen were working there. The bombs caused considerable damage to the Royal Chapel and the inner quadrangle, prompting the Queen to declare, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed…” Lionel Logue wrote to the King to express his ‘thankfulness and gratitude to the Most High’ for their narrow escape from what he called ‘a dastardly attempt on your life.’ He added:
‘It did not seem possible that even the Germans would descend to such depths of infamy.’
Tommy Lascelles wrote back to Logue four days later to thank him for his expression of concern, which the King and Queen had greatly appreciated, telling him that Their Majesties were ‘none the worse for their experience,’ and adding that he hoped the Logue family was managing ‘to get some sleep now and again.’ The City of London had suffered heavily, and Threadneedle Street was roped off because of a ‘giant crater’ in front of the Bank of England. More severe, however, was the damage to Whitechapel and Docklands. The American military attaché in London, General Raymond Lee described what happened to the houses in the East End:
‘When a bomb hits one of those dismal brick houses, it goes on into the ground, blows a big hole and all the dreary fragments of the house fall into it. … no one was complaining.’Leutze (ed.), London Observer, p. 51.
One workman told General Lee:
“All we want to know is whether we are bombing Berlin. If they are getting all or more than we are, we can stick it.”Ibid.
On the 14th of September, the bombing moved to the industrial area of the River Clyde, far away from the intended landing sites. In all, between 7 September and the end of the first period of the Blitz on 16 May 1941, there were nine more attacks on London (i.e. attacks dropping more than a hundred tons of HE – high explosives), eight each on Liverpool, Birmingham and Plymouth, six on Bristol (see the photo below), five on Glasgow, four on Southampton, three on Portsmouth, two on Coventry (the most notorious being on 14-15th November) and at least one on a further seven cities. ‘The Blitz’ was therefore different from, though overlapping with the Battle of Britain. The initiation of the London Blitz during the battle of Britain allowed the RAF to achieve victory in the air battle over the coasts, although the Blitz continued long after that victory was won. In total 18,291 tons of HE were dropped in London during these months and more than a thousand tons each in Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth and Glasgow, as well as between 919 and 578 tons in other British cities.
Although Britain had twelve hundred heavy anti-aircraft guns and nearly four thousand searchlights in July 1940, they were of limited use except for forcing German planes to higher altitudes than were ideal for accurate bombing. During the night-time Blitz, more German bombers were lost to flying accidents than to anti-aircraft fire or night fighters. ‘Ack-Ack’, as it was colloquially known, nonetheless gave civilians sheltering below the morale-boosting sense that Britain was fighting back. Hitler’s intentions were clear from a monologue he gave to his architect-in-chief, Albert Speer at a supper in the Reich Chancellory in the summer of 1940:
“Have you ever looked at a map of London? It is so closely built up that one source of fire alone would suffice to destroy the whole city, as happened once before, two hundred <sic> years ago. Göring wants to use innumerable incendiary bombs of an altogether new type to create sources of fire in all parts of London. Fires everywhere. Thousands of them. Then they’ll unite in one gigantic conflagration. Göring has the right idea. Explosive bombs don’t work but it can be done with incendiary bombs – total destruction of London. What use will their fire department be once that really starts!”Speer, Inside the Third Reich, p. 284.
Although this sounds like the ranting of a pathological pyromaniac, the concentration on incendiary rather than HE bombs did have a logic behind it, and it was used to terrible effect in Coventry, giving the neologism ‘Coventration’ to the English and German dictionaries. The destruction of the city became emblematic of the Blitz for many Britons after it was attacked by five hundred German bombers on the night of 14-15 November. Nearly six hundred people were killed and 865 were injured. These numbers may seem relatively small in comparison with the bombing of German cities like Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945, but the fact that it came so early on in the conflict made it a powerful symbol both of Hitler’s ruthlessness and of the growing spirit of resistance and solidarity among the British people. The wooden-framed medieval buildings of the city centre were turned into a sea of flames.
Two-thirds of the 180 principal factories sustained damage. The bombing also burst water mains, as shown in the photo above, taken on the morning of the 15th. Electricity, gas, telephone, and transport services were severely disrupted. About twelve per cent of the city’s houses were either destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. King George visited on the 15th, the day after the bombing. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed because its beamed roof had been set on fire. The King spent hours tramping through the rubble. The effect of his visit on the morale of Coventrians was huge, although George VI himself was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the destruction and was later frank with Logue about the strength of his feelings and how they made him emotionally mute:
“What could I say to these poor people who had lost everything, sometimes their families? Words were inadequate.”M. Logue & P. Conradi, op. cit., p. 181
The King’s visit was followed by those of Sir John Reith, Herbert Morrison (for the government), Wendell Wilkie, and Robert Menzies. Winston Churchill did not visit, however, which later led to false claims that he had failed to provide the city with sufficient warning to mitigate the effects of the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ raid, as it was code-named by the Germans (referring to the full moon and the three waves of attack), as cracked at Bletchley Park.
The rumours about Churchill’s failure to act developed into a conspiracy theory in the 1970s, following the publication of a series of accounts of how Allied cryptographers had, early in the war, broken many of the German military codes at the Bletchley Park Enigma Programme. This theory is that the city could have been warned earlier, but the Government did not want to reveal to the Germans that Enigma had cracked their codes. In reality, however, the warning could not have been given before 3 p.m., when the X-beam dispositions became known, just two hours or so before the raid began. Ian McLaine (1979), in his Ministry of Morale, wrote of how Churchill agreed to release more information on blitzed towns when it became clear that the unauthorised release of news about the November raid on Coventry had given Britain ‘a propaganda coup in America and even in Germany itself.’ But although a propaganda film, ‘The Story of Coventry’ was made for the Ministry of Information by British Paramount News at a cost of seven hundred pounds and designed for overseas distribution only, it was objected to by the Air Ministry and the censors, and never distributed at all (PRO. Inf. 6/441).
The immediate survivors had the most urgent job of trying to make sense of it. Tom Harrisson (1976) wrote in Living Through the Blitz that it did not take the people of Coventry long to find their bearings:
Out of the rubble began to grow local pride … no one had ever suffered more. It was a wonder to have endured at all.
One important prop to recovery was the fact that Coventry was a relatively small city, so the destruction of its centre was all the more ‘impressive.’ Moreover, the destruction of the Cathedral became a very important symbol which, via some adroit government propaganda, gripped the imagination of the world, both throughout the war, in the fight against fascism, and after, when it became a symbol of rebirth, reconstruction and international reconciliation. For the four days after the blitz, as the Mayor told the City Council on 3rd December:
‘… most of us were cut off from the ordinary sources of news and hence we did not realise how famous Coventry had suddenly become. It was, I think, on Monday that telegrams and messages from all over the country, and indeed, the world, began to pour in, and we learned what a deep impression had been produced by the manner in which Coventry had stood up to its ordeal.’
But the city’s recovery was interrupted by eighteen more raids, of which two were particularly serious and approached the destruction of November 1940. They took place within forty-eight hours of each other in April 1941. On the night of 8/9 April, 281 people were killed and 570 seriously injured, while on the following night 170 more were killed and 153 injured. The first raid lasted for over five hours and the second for four and a half. These raids also saw the destruction of the main hospital, Guildhall and King Henry VIII’s School, with direct hits on the Council House, Central Police Station and LMS Railway Goods Office. Forty-two factories were also damaged, four of them seriously. Additionally, thirty thousand houses were damaged and public services were again seriously curtailed.
Henry Pelling reflected from 1970 that in the hectic days of 1940, it was quite common for people to suppose that the war was bringing about a social revolution in Britain. Many of the wealthy thought so and lamented that they had lived to go through such an experience. Undoubtedly, he wrote, the war brought into existence, at least for a time, a stronger sense of community throughout the country:
… Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz produced a ‘backs-to-the-wall’ solidarity that transcended class barriers and brought together all sorts of people in the Home Guard, Civil Defence, the air raid shelters and… to some extent the factories. … The increased mobility of the population… tended to to break down parochialism.H. Pelling (1970), Britain and the Second World War. London: Collins/Fontana, pp. 297-99, 303-4, 320-22.
In the year that followed Dunkirk, there was overwhelming evidence of this new-found cohesiveness and mutual loyalty. The complete isolation of Britain, fighting on alone, which Hitler not unreasonably assumed would make it a soft target, had precisely the reverse effect. Churchill turned on the ‘island nation’ rhetoric and the British people across all classes, with very few exceptions, echoed him. This did not, of course, mean that there was no bitterness and alienation among those who lost any one of the sixty thousand civilians killed in the war or the millions who had been made homeless by the destruction of the Blitz.
Nor did all social divisions dissolve into a new brew of patriotic cheerfulness. With all these reservations, however, what is still striking is the extent to which Britain, which had been such a divided society between the wars, managed to pull together when it mattered most. The collaborative push made a critical difference to the production of munitions in general and of warplanes in particular, which in turn made the difference between winning and losing the Battle of Britain. Misled by overestimates of their numerical and technological superiority, Göring’s Luftwaffe kept on, prematurely, writing the RAF’s obituary. Like pheonixes, the Spitfires and Hurricanes continued to rise from the ashes to mock Hitler’s hubris.
The Widening War, 1941-43:
Logue was again invited to Windsor on Christmas Eve, 1940 and on Christmas Day to help with the broadcast. As in the previous year, there was no question but that the King would address the Empire. After a Christmas dinner of boar’s head and prunes, Logue followed the King to his study and they got down to work. Logue did not like the speech; as far as he was concerned, there was nothing for the King to get his teeth into, but there was little he could do about the content. In it, the King warned his people that the future would be hard ‘but our feet are planted on the path of victory and, with the help of God, we shall make our way to justice and to peace.’ On 22nd June 1941, Germany, along with other European Axis members and Finland, invaded the USSR in Operation Barbarossa. In the months that followed, Hitler and his allies made significant gains in Ukraine and the Baltic States, as well as laying siege to Leningrad and coming close to Moscow. On 5th December, the Russians began a counter-attack.
Two days later the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, bringing the might of the United States to the Allied side. Further humiliations and disasters followed in quick order. There was an ominous sign in December 1941 when the capital ships, Repulse and Prince of Wales, were sunk by Japanese aircraft off the Malayan coast. Some weeks later, the German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, triumphantly ran the British gauntlet, ‘sailing past our front door’ through the English Channel. On New Year’s Eve, Harold Nicolson entitled his new diary: 1942 – A Year, I hope, of Recovery. After the ignominious reverses of 1941, he was clearly buoyed up by Soviet successes in repelling the German advance before Moscow, though his first thought had been that the Soviets would be ‘bowled over by a touch.’ He was also encouraged by the entry of the United States into the war: ‘The Americans,‘ he maintained, ‘will not rest until they have avenged it <Pearl Harbour>’.
However, this initial optimism soon faded. By March 1942, the British Empire in the Far East had collapsed: Singapore had surrendered, its garrison yielding to a force less than half its number; Hong Kong had fallen; Japanese armies, having occupied Malaya and Burma, had advanced to threaten India. In North Africa, Rommel, his army reinforced, struck eastwards, driving British forces out of Cyrenaica. That June, Tobruk capitulated, and thirty-three thousand troops again surrendered to a numerically inferior enemy force. Axis armies, now deployed on the borders of Egypt, menaced the Suez Canal and British possessions in the Middle East. These were military disasters of the first magnitude. A mortified Churchill recalled: ‘Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.’ For his part, Harold Nicolson wondered why…
‘… our troops had not fought well in Malaya… the blackest mark in the whole history of the British army. Why? Why?’Harold Nicolson to Vita Sackville-West, 24 Feb. 1942.
The Axis powers continued to advance throughout 1942: Japanese forces swept through Asia, conquering Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. The Germans, meanwhile, ravaged Allied shipping in the Atlantic and in June launched a summer offensive to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus and occupy the Kuban steppe. The Soviets made their stand at Stalingrad. Then came the turning point in Africa and, it could be argued, the world war. The British forces counter-attacked, repulsing Rommel. The Germans dug in, however, and a stalemate ensued, during which Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed commander of the Eighth Army. On 23rd October, the Allies attacked again, with Montgomery’s two hundred thousand men and eleven hundred tanks ranged against the Axis’ 115,000 and 559 tanks.
Logue was one of the first to hear of Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein. On the afternoon of 4th November, he was at the Palace with the King, going through a speech he was due to give at the State Opening of Parliament, set for the twelfth. Then the telephone rang and the King walked over and picked it up. He became excited when he was told, the enemy is in full retreat. That evening, he wrote in his diary: ‘A victory at last, how good it is for the nerves.’
With this great news, by the end of 1942, Harold Nicolson’s mood had improved. Invited to Downing Street for lunch, he was greeted by a radiant Churchill, clad in his boiler suit of air force blue, who waved before the company a letter from the King saying how much he and the Queen were thinking of him in ‘these glorious days.’ Winston muttered, ‘and every word in his own hand.’ He had called the gathering to celebrate the victory of El Alamein, which Churchill wanted to be called the Battle of Egypt. As the guests were about to scatter, Churchill promised them ‘more jam to come, much more jam, and in places where some of you least expect.’ Three days later, on 9 November, Harold heard of the Anglo-American invasion of French North-West Africa. Allied forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, both nominally in the hands of the Vichy régime. Operation Torch, intended to open a second front in North Africa, was underway.
Amid this drama, yet another Christmas address was looming. A couple of days before, Logue rehearsed it with the King. The speech required a little surgery; Logue wasn’t keen on passages Churchill had written into the text as they just didn’t seem right coming out of HM’s mouth. Logue wrote in his diary:
‘It was typical Churchill and could have been recognised by anyone. With the King’s help, we cut out adjectives and the Prime Minister.’
At 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, the King began his broadcast:
‘It is at Christmas, more than any other time, that we are conscious of the dark shadow of war. Our Christmas festival today must lack many of the happy, familiar features that it has had from our childhood… But though its outward observances may be limited, the message of Christmas remains eternal and unchanged. It is a message of thankfulness and hope – of thankfulness to the Almighty for His great mercies, of hope for the return to this earth of peace and good will.’
During the speech, the King spoke of the great contribution being made to the war effort by the other members of the Empire, and also by the United States. He ended with a story once told by Abraham Lincoln about a boy who was carrying a smaller child up a hill: ‘Asked whether the heavy burden was not too much for him, the boy answered, “It’s not a burden, it’s my brother.” ‘
The newspapers were full of praise for the royal performance. The Glasgow Herald commented:
Both in manner and in matter, the King’s broadcast yesterday was the most mature and inspiriting that he has yet made. It worthily maintained the tradition of Christmas Day broadcasts.
Churchill, the greatest orator of them all, rang to congratulate him on how well he had done. On Boxing Day, Logue received a short handwritten letter of thanks from the King and replied, writing full of enthusiasm about how all manner of people have been ringing with their congratulations.
Turning the Tide & The Home Front, 1943-44:
By the summer of 1943, after two years of unremitting bad news, the war was beginning to go the Allies’ way. The battle for North Africa had ended in triumph. Then, on 10th July, the British Eighth Army, under General Bernard Montgomery, and the US Seventh Army, under General George Patton, began their combined assault on Sicily, which was to serve as the springboard for an invasion of the Italian mainland. A fortnight later Mussolini was deposed and on 3rd September the new Italian government agreed to unconditional surrender; the following month, Italy declared war on Germany. The Germans put up fierce resistance both in Italy and on the Russian front, and Churchill told the King he thought the Germans might well be beaten before the end of 1944, but feared it might take until 1946 to achieve victory in the Far East.
King George was keen to visit his victorious armies in the field and congratulate them on their achievements. He had made a similar trip before, in December 1939, when he visited the BEF in France, but the situation had deteriorated so badly in the meantime that there had been no thought of repetition. In June 1943, however, travelling incognito as ‘General Lyon’ for security reasons, he set off on a far more ambitious two-week tour of North Africa, inspecting British and American forces in Algeria and Libya. Everywhere, he was given an enthusiastic reception.
World War II had a far greater impact on the day-to-day life of Britain’s civilian population than World War I. Apart from the enormous effort of mobilising an entire economy for war production, civilians in many parts of the country faced the prospect of devastating air attacks. The distressing mass evacuations of the early part of the war soon gave way to more measured government efforts to maintain civilian morale. A widespread business-as-usual attitude ensured that neither politics nor industrial action was entirely set aside. Profound social changes were set in motion, though not only by the mobilisation of women into the workforce but also by the exposure of the British people to the wealthier, alien culture of US service personnel.
On Thursday 1 June 1944, Logue received a call from Lascelles, who had been promoted to the King’s private secretary, asking him to go to Windsor for lunch the next day. When he arrived, he found Lascelles in a very serious mood, telling him:
Sorry I cannot tell you much about the broadcast. It is, as a matter of fact, a matter of fact, a call to prayer, and takes about five minutes, and strange as it might seem, I cannot tell you when it is, as you have probably guessed that it is to be given on the night of D-Day, at nine o’clock.’
Lascelles had not had to explain what he meant by D-Day. The military terminology for the day chosen for the Allied assault on Nazi-occupied Europe had long since passed into common parlance. But when and where that assault would take place remained a closely guarded secret. The element of surprise was essential if the Allies were to succeed, and they had gone to extraordinary and ingenious lengths to feed disinformation to the Germans.
Planning for D-Day:
It had been at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, that Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed on a full-scale invasion using a combination of British, Canadian and US forces. Churchill, who was keen to avoid a repetition of the costly frontal assaults of the First World War, had proposed invading the Balkans, with the aim of linking up with Soviet forces and then possibly bringing in Turkey on the side of the Allies. The Americans preferred an invasion of Western Europe, however, and their view prevailed. The decision was confirmed at the Quebec conference of August 1943. The operation was named Operation Overlord, and by the winter the choice of landing point had been narrowed down to either Pas-de-Calais or Normandy. On Christmas Eve, General Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SCAEF).
Nothing could detract from the mockery involved in Operations Fortitude North and Fortitude South in the months before D-day, which led to Hitler stationing hundreds of thousands of troops in Norway, Holland, Belgium and the Pas de Calais, rather than on the Normandy beaches where the blow was always going to come, ever since its first inception in the spring of 1942. The two Fortitude operations constitute the most successful deception plan in the history of warfare. These elaborate operations had been put in place by the Allies years earlier. Twice as many reconnaissance flights, interdiction raids and bombing missions took place over the Pas de Calais as over Normandy. The First US Army Group (FUSAG), commanded by General Patton and visited by King George VI, was simply invented and stationed across the Channel from Calais. It came complete with dummy tanks (made from rubber by Shepperton Film Studios), false headquarters, fabricated landing craft, camp stoves, that smoked and even concealed lighting on the airfields. The Germans could not believe that a commander of Patton’s eminence would have been wasted by the Allies on a ruse, and neither could Patton himself.
By May 1944, the Abwehr was convinced that there were seventy-nine divisions stationed in Britain when the true figure was forty-seven. False wireless traffic was sent out in East Anglia. An armada of dummy landing craft and tanks was assembled in the Thames Estuary. An actor was sent to Gibraltar prior to the Normandy landings to pose as Montgomery. These many, varied, sometimes convoluted yet often brilliant schemes saved tens of thousands of lives.
Operations Overlord & Neptune:
Plans for the real Operation Overlord were outlined by Eisenhower and his commanders at a meeting held on 15th May in a classroom at St Paul’s School. The unusual venue was chosen because Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, had been educated there. In the days that followed, more and more forces were concentrated in southern England; the invasion was imminent. D-Day was initially set for 5th June, but the weather that weekend was poor: it was cold and wet and there was a gale blowing from the west, making high seas, all of which would make it impossible to launch landing craft from larger ships at sea. Low cloud, meanwhile, would prevent Allied aircraft from finding their targets. The operation required a day close to the full moon due the following Monday. Delaying for another month and sending the troops back to their embarkation camps would be a huge and difficult operation and so, advised by the chief meteorologist of a brief clear improvement in the weather the next day, Eisenhower took the momentous decision to go on the 6th of June.
Hours later, Operation Neptune, the name given to the first assault phase of Operation Overlord, began: shortly after midnight, twenty-four thousand British, Canadian, Free French and US airborne troops landed. Then, starting at 6.30 a.m., the first Allied infantry and armoured divisions embarked along a fifty-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. By the end of the day, more than 165,000 troops had come ashore; over five thousand ships were involved. It was the largest amphibious invasion of all time.
Pride, Prayer & Progress in Normandy:
That evening, at six o’clock, Logue arrived, as arranged, at the Palace: he was shown in to see the King fifteen minutes later. The speech was scheduled for nine o’clock and the atmosphere was tense. After running through the speech once, they went downstairs to the air-raid shelter. Robert Wood of the BBC was also there, and they ran through the text. The speech ran to five and a half minutes, and they made two alterations. After they had finished, they went straight back to the King’s room, and that evening, as Britons gathered around their radio sets, he spoke:
‘Four years ago our nation and Empire stood alone against an overwhelming enemy with our backs to the wall, tested as never before in our history, and we survived that test. The spirit of the people, resolute and dedicated, burned like a bright flame, surely, from those unseen fires which nothing can quench.
‘Once more the supreme test has to be faced. This time the challenge is not to fight to survive, but to fight to win the final victory for the good cause. Once again, what is demanded from us all is something more than courage, more than endurance.’
The King went on to call for a ‘revival of the spirit, a new unconquerable reserve’ and to ‘renew that crusading impulse on which we entered the war and met its darkest hour.’ He concluded by quoting verse 11 from Psalm 29: ‘The Lord will give strength unto his people: the Lord will bless his people with peace.’ The speech fitted perfectly with the national mood. While the front pages of the newspapers the following morning carried graphic accounts of the landings, the leader writers reacted with pride at what was seen as a chance for Britain to finally reverse the indignity it had suffered four years earlier at Dunkirk. The King received a number of letters of gratitude, including one from his mother, Queen Mary. He wrote in reply that ‘it was a great opportunity to call everybody to prayer. I have wanted to do it for a long time.’
There was great national pride in D-Day when it finally came, and in the heroic Normandy campaigns that followed. Operation Overlord was a success and the Battle of Normandy continued for more than two months. On 21st August, after a battle that raged for more than a week, the so-called ‘Falaise Pocket’ was closed, trapping fifty thousand German troops inside. Days later, Paris was liberated, and the German garrison occupying the city surrendered on the 25th. By the thirtieth, the last German troops had retreated across the River Seine. Brussels was liberated on 3rd September and by October, German forces had been driven, almost completely, from France and Belgium and from the southern part of the Netherlands. On 16th December, Hitler made a last desperate attempt to turn the tide, with the German Army launching a massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes with the aim of splitting the Western Allies, encircling large sections of troops and capturing Antwerp, the primary port from which they were supplied.
The Return of Terror from the Skies – V1s & V2s:
For those on the Home Front, there was a sudden return of terror from the skies as unmanned V1 flying bombs, then V2 rockets hit the southeast from the summer of 1944 until 1945, killing nearly nine thousand people and injuring many more. Hitler’s first secret weapon, the V1 pilotless plane, was filled with high explosives that rained down on London and other cities day and night for much of the nine months after D-Day. The effect on morale was severe, and is summed up in the words Queen Elizabeth wrote to Queen Mary:
‘There is something very inhuman about death-dealing missiles being launched in such an indiscriminate manner.’Wheeler-Bennett, op. cit. p. 620.
There was worse to come that September, as the V-1s were followed by the even more terrifying V-2s, ballistic missiles launched from installations in the Netherlands and the Pas de Calais, which fell with no warning on London and the southeast. The first one was in Chiswick, in the west of the capital, on 8th September. But the deployment of these weapons also helped to close the social rifts which had opened up for a while in 1942-44 and made Churchill’s standing as a war leader suddenly important again.
On the evening of Sunday 3rd December, the King was due to make a speech on the radio to mark the disbanding of the Home Guard, the two-million-strong defence force formed of men either too old or not fit enough to join the army. The force had been created in July 1940 to help defend Britain against a Nazi invasion, which then appeared imminent. Now, in a reflection of how much the tide of war was running in the Allies’ favour, it was being disbanded. Logue worked with the King on the text of the speech and went to Windsor to hear him speak. That Christmas, there was another message to the nation and on 23rd December Logue returned to Windsor to go over the wording. Its tone was optimistic, expressing the hope that before the following Christmas the nightmare of tyranny and conflict would be over. The text read:
‘If we look back to those early days of the war, we can surely say that the darkness daily grows less and less. The lamps which the Germans put out all over Europe, first in 1914 and then in 1939 are slowly being rekindled. Already we can see some of them beginning to shine through the fog of war that still surrounds so many lands. Anxiety is giving way to confidence and let us hope that before next Christmas Day, the story of liberation and triumph will be complete.’
As they sat in the study, with the fire burning, the King suddenly said: ‘Logue, I think the time has finally come when I can do a broadcast by myself, and you can have Christmas dinner with your family.’ Logue had been expecting this moment for some time, especially since the Home Guard speech. So, instead of Logue, it was decided that, for the first time, Queen Elizabeth and the princesses would sit beside the King at the microphone as he delivered his message. But afterwards, he telephoned the King, who told him that his work was not over since it was the preliminary work that counted, which was where Logue was indispensable. The King reiterated this in a letter on 8th January, in which he expressed his gratitude to Lionel for making it possible for him ‘to carry out this vital part of my job,’ to which Logue responded four days later:
‘When a fresh patient comes to me the usual query is: “Will I be able to speak like the King?” and my reply is: “Yes, if you will work like he does.” I will cure anyone of intelligence if they will only work like you did – for you are now reaping the benefit of this tremendously hard work you did at the beginning.’
Crossing the Rhine & Victory in Europe, 1945:
By January 1945 the Germans had been repulsed from the Ardennes without achieving any of their strategic objectives. Churchill had always had a thirst for action and even at the age of seventy, he was only dissuaded by King George VI from landing on the Normandy beaches a few days after D-Day. Instead, he joined the troops in their crossing of the Rhine (pictured above). The Western Allies crossed the Rhine both north and south of the Ruhr in March, and the following month pushed forward into Italy and swept across western Germany, linking up with the Soviets at the River Elbe on 25th April.
When on 8th May, Victory in Europe (VE) Day, Churchill stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, with the King and Queen and the two princesses, he could take satisfaction in the realisation that he had indeed accomplished a task given to very few. He had saved not only his own country but, arguably, the existence of European democracy, which had it not been for British resistance in 1940 would indeed have been overwhelmed by tyranny. George VI had proved himself as ‘the People’s King’ with the help of his ministers and, of course, his people at home and abroad.
It was one of the greatest, and certainly, the most joyous, street parties London had ever seen. Tens of thousands of singing and dancing people gathered in the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. At 3 p.m., Churchill broadcast from the War Cabinet Office, the same room in which Neville Chamberlain had announced that the country was at war six years earlier. Shortly afterwards, the King, as much a symbol of national resistance as Churchill, stepped out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the cheers of the ecstatic crowd below. For the first time in public, he was accompanied not just by the but also by the two princesses. At 5.30 p.m., the doors opened again, and the royal family stepped out onto the balcony once more, this time together with Churchill. They made a total of eight appearances that day. Later that evening, the King followed his prime minister in addressing the nation. He declared:
“Today we give thanks… for a great deliverance. Speaking from our Empire’s oldest capital city, war-battered but never for one moment daunted or dismayed, speaking from London, I ask you to join with me in that act of thanksgiving.
“Germany, the enemy who drove all Europe into war, has been finally overcome. …at this hour when the dreadful shadow of war has passed far from our hearths and homes in these islands, we may at last make one pause for thanksgivingand then turn our thoughts to the task all over the world which peace in Europe brings with it.”
The King was exhausted, and he stumbled more than had become usual over his words; but on this occasion, it didn’t matter. Noel Coward, who was among the crowd, recalled that it roared itself hoarse on what was, he supposed ‘the greatest day in our history.’
As the celebrations continued, the two princesses asked for permission to be allowed out into the throng. The King agreed: ‘Poor darlings, they have never had any fun yet,’ he wrote in his diary. And so, at 10.30 p.m., accompanied by a discreet escort of Guards officers, Elizabeth and Margaret Windsor, slipped out of the Palace incognito. No one seemed to recognise the two teenage princesses, aged nineteen and fourteen, as they joined the conga line into one door of the Ritz and out of the other.
A Footnote on the Führer:
If different counsels had prevailed at Führer-conferences, such as Brauchitsch’s at Dunkirk or Galland’s during the battle of Britain, the Reich would have been in a better position to prosecute the war. But Hitler, a soldier of sorts himself in World War One, was not prepared to leave soldiering to the soldiers. A Führer had to be a superman, equal to any call or challenge. For such a spectacular know-it-all as Hitler, with views on everything and a love of the minutiae of military history, the prospect of taking a back seat in a world war, like King George VI and Victor Emmanuel III, was a psychological impossibility. With Soviet troops only a few hundred yards away, Hitler shot himself in his bunker and the capture of the Reichstag signalled the defeat of the Third Reich.
(to be continued…)