Using Cabinet papers from the UK’s national archives, former UK Foreign Secretary Lord Owen writes about the essential role of the little-known, yet pivotal British War Cabinet meetings of May 1940
Cabinet’s Finest Hour: The Hidden Agenda of May 1940 records nine highly secret ministerial meetings from 26 to 28 May 1940, when Winston Churchill was the leader of a War Cabinet in which his voice was powerful, but not all-powerful.
The War Cabinet debated a simple question: should Britain fight on in the face of overwhelming odds, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives, or seek a negotiated peace? The minutes and documents reveal how Britain examined a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany. Cabinet’s Finest Hour is both the story of Prime Minister Churchill’s determination to fight on and a paean of praise for the Cabinet system of government. The Cabinet system, all too often disparaged as messy and cumbersome, worked in Britain’s interests and ensured a democracy on the brink of defeat had the courage to assess the alternatives but also fight on.
The crucial sentence on discussion of negotiated peace comes in the second confidential meeting of ministers, when French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud’s views on the sort of settlement that might keep Italy out of the war were delineated.
“If an approach was made to Italy, what sort of terms would Italy ask? Probably the neutralisation of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, the demilitarisation of Malta, and the limitation of naval forces in the Mediterranean. Some alteration in the status of Tunis would also be asked for, and the Dodecanese [the islands in the SE of Greece near to Turkey] would have to be put right.”
At the third meeting, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax favoured making an approach to Italy and thought:
“The last thing that Signor Mussolini wanted was to see Herr Hitler dominating Europe. He would be anxious, if he could, to persuade Herr Hitler to take a more reasonable attitude.”
Churchill doubted whether anything would come of an approach to Italy, but said that the matter was one that the War Cabinet would have to consider.
During the fourth meeting on 27 May, the six men including Archibald Sinclair, the Leader of the Liberal Party who had been added to the War Cabinet by Churchill to strengthen his own position, had the task of absorbing the two and a half typed pages of the convincing and concise Chiefs of Staff report on the ‘Near Future.’ This is arguably the most important single military assessment put to the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the entire war. The crux of the matter was air superiority. For once Germany had attained this, she might attempt to subjugate Britain by air attack alone.
“Air attacks on the aircraft factories would be made by day or night. We consider that we should be able to inflict such casualties on the enemy by day as to prevent serious damage. Whatever we do, however, by way of defensive measures and we are pressing on with these with all dispatch, we cannot be sure of protecting the large industrial centres, upon which our aircraft industries depend, from serious material damage by night attack. The enemy would not have to employ precision bombing to achieve this effect.”
Then came the final paragraph, which in its new brevity, clarity and force one can sense the influence of Sir John Dill on his first day in post, having replaced Lord Ironside as Chief of the Defence Staff. Dill was definitely backing a fight rather than a negotiating strategy.
“To sum up, our conclusion is that prima facie Germany has most of the cards; but the real test is whether the morale of our fighting personnel and civil population will counter balance the numerical and material advantages which Germany enjoys. We believe it will.”
The War Cabinet’s fifth meeting was held at 4.30pm that same day, 27 May. Former Prime Minister Chamberlain was still standing alongside Halifax, but there was seemingly less enthusiasm. At one stage the minutes read:
“The Prime Minister said that the Lord President’s [Chamberlain’s] argument amounted to this, that nothing would come of the approach, but that it was worth doing to sweeten relations with a failing ally.”
Churchill clearly sensed that Chamberlain’s argument for negotiating was nuanced and not one of principled opposition; nor was it even a substantive point. Churchill, using every political wile, skill and knowledge he had accumulated over the decades, was intent on one thing: prising Chamberlain away from Halifax. Halifax embarked on a harsh exchange:
“On the present occasion, however, the Prime Minister seemed to suggest that under no conditions would we contemplate any course except fighting to a finish… If, however, it was possible to obtain a settlement, which did not impair those conditions, he, for his part, doubted if he would be able to accept the view now put forward by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister had said that two or three months would show whether we were able to stand up against the air risk. This meant that the future of the country turned on whether the enemy bombs happened to hit our aircraft factories. He was prepared to take that risk if our independence was at stake; but if it was not at stake he would think it right to accept an offer that would save the country from avoidable disaster.
The Prime Minister said that he thought that the issue which the War Cabinet was called upon to settle was difficult enough without getting involved in the discussion of an issue which was quite unreal and was most unlikely to arise. If Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of the restoration of the German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe, that was one thing. But it was quite unlikely that he would make any such offer.
The Prime Minister said that he would not join France in asking for terms; but if he were told what the terms offered were, he would be prepared to consider them.”
Halifax’s position was by now seen by Churchill, Attlee, Greenwood and Sinclair as defeatist, and I suspect by Chamberlain too. Chamberlain must have sensed the degree of exasperation, even resignation, from Halifax; yet Chamberlain said nothing – a significant omission for if he intended to resign, it could be argued he owed it to colleagues to at least indicate he shared some of Halifax’s concerns.
The sixth meeting of the War Cabinet started at 10pm on 27 May and went on to around midnight. There was no recorded discussion about the Italian’s adverse reaction to US President Roosevelt’s message. On 28 May at 11.30am the War Cabinet met and Churchill read out the humiliating terms of the armistice, signed by the Belgians. Two further War Cabinet meetings took place and Churchill telephoned President Reynaud at 11.40pm that evening saying “that the President of the USA has received a wholly negative reply to the proposal which we jointly asked him to make and that no response has been made to the approach of Lord Halifax, made to the Italian Ambassador here last Saturday.”
At the eighth meeting of the War Cabinet at 4pm on 28 May Halifax spoke, but Chamberlain only said:
“…that on a dispassionate survey, it was right to remember that the alternative to fighting on nevertheless involved a considerable gamble. The War Cabinet agreed that this was a true statement of the case. Churchill said that nations that went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.”
Seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had by now clearly lost the debate, Halifax said:
“…nothing in his suggestion could even remotely be described as ultimate capitulation. The Prime Minister thought that the chances of decent terms being offered to us at the present time were a thousand to one against.”
At this point the War Cabinet broke off its discussions to enable the Prime Minister to attend a meeting of the full Cabinet.
Leo Amery (Secretary of State for India and Burma) and Hugh Dalton’s (Minister of Economic Warfare) accounts of this meeting make it very clear that this was no normal event. Churchill told the 25 ministers around the Prime Minister’s room in the House of Commons that Britain was going to fight and not negotiate. It was, in effect, an eve of war battle cry, a culmination of eight very full meetings of the War Cabinet.
If a Foreign Secretary cannot with honour raise the arguments for negotiating for peace during war, then it is a diminished Prime Minister and Cabinet that blocks such a discussion.
Cabinet’s Finest Hour. The Hidden Agenda of May 1940 by David Owen
(Haus Publishing, 2016) is available now.