Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany

Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly. Scribners, 2016 paper.

Never Surrender opens with the victory parade in London in July 1919. Britain and her allies had won the Great War, but the toll on European lives had been huge. It is estimated that thirty-seven million men, women, and children were killed or wounded in World War I. “Never again” was a commitment to peaceful ways of resolving conflicts amongst the European nations to avoid another slaughter. It produced a strong British pacifist movement, one that would have to be overcome twenty years later as the European skies once again darkened.

British military planners recognized that warfare would be different in future wars. Air power would be decisive; naval power could no longer ensure the safety of British cities. Good people on both sides of the English Channel were talking about the necessity to negotiate solutions, and if necessary even make concessions. Appeasement! But it did not have the connotations of weakness that the policy would come to have.

Appeasement is a considered policy associated with Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. The Munich Agreement that he negotiated with Adolf Hitler in 1938 was intended to solve through negotiations the problems of the Sudeten Germans living as a minority in Czechoslovakia. The author, John Kelly, ‘goes easy’ on Chamberlain. But unfortunately for his reputation with historians, Chamberlain, returned from Munich making the claim that appeasement had brought “peace in our time.”

Chamberlain’s determination to negotiate an amiable settlement was supported by the prominent Conservative statesmen, David Lloyd George who had led Britain to victory in WWI. Winston Churchill, also a Conservative, believed that in future negotiations, Britain must keep to its commitments to its allies, France and Belgium and after 1939 to Poland.

Kelly makes it clear that Churchill believed Britain would ultimately have the support of the United States. But President Roosevelt would also have to overcome pacifist sentiments in America. Among other prominent supporters of American neutrality in European affairs was the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.

It was hoped that Benito Mussolini and Italy would continue to play the role of peacemaker as he had at Munich. Churchill never trusted Mussolini but there were those in Britain who believed that his interests were sufficiently different from Adolf Hitler’s to qualify him as neutral. But in return for his participation in 1940, Mussolini was asking for concessions, even some of Britain’s Mediterranean possessions. Mussolini was waiting to see who was going to win the war. Ultimately he miscalculated.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and was immediately confronted with the German invasion of Belgium and France. An expeditionary force sent to France was an attempt to bolster French morale, crumbling under the rapid German advance, the Blitzkrieg.

The French pressured the Brits to send more troops and more aircraft. Churchill, assumed that once Germany had defeated the Allied armies in France, it would invade the British Isles. To defend Britain he would need his army and the British air squadrons that he had sent to France. Much to the outrage of the French high command, he withheld their request for more planes.

Perhaps the single greatest “victory” in Churchill’s first months as Prime Minister was the evacuation from Dunkirk. There is a touching story about the “the little boats” summoned to ferry a substantial army across the English Channel. Kelly reports that most of the evacuees were transported across the Channel on destroyers and troop transports, not fishing boats.

Dunkirk poses a conundrum. Why did Hitler order a halt of his armies as they approached Dunkirk, favoring a bombardment by his Luftwaffe? (The order was given by General Gerd von Rundstedt but validated by Hitler.) Kelly offers no hypotheses.

The miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill referred to it, saved 340,000 British and French troops from death on the beaches or a long wartime imprisonment. Soldiers’ lives were saved but all of their military equipment and supplies had to be abandoned.

The Battle of Britain, German air bombardment of British cities and military installations, began almost immediately in June 1940 and lasted until the following June. Britain, despite having fewer aircraft, had the advantage of home air bases, had radar which allowed them to use their fighters more effectively and acted and which acted as an early warning system. Kelly points out that German bombers only had enough fuel to remain in the skies over Britain for a half hour. Rarely was that enough time to find their targets, while being chased by British fighters.

The reader is left with the Battle of Britain not over and its outcome uncertain. “Britain’s decision?” Kelly would have us believe that it was a series of small decisions that extended back to the botched peace after WWI and forward to the decision to continue the good fight after the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Never Again became Never Surrender.

 

 

 

 

 

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