In a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain it is useful to remember that what it made it possible was the power of No. The question of whether Britain was to fight on or seek a negotiated settlement with the Nazis divided the British cabinet in May of 1940. The country was facing imminent invasion. Churchill wanted to fight on, while Lord Halifax looked at the facts and realized the only rational course was to make peace with Hitler. Ultimately Churchill convinced the War Cabinet, composed of five persons, to keep fighting. The May Crisis as it is sometimes called, occurred scant months before the RAF met the Luftwaffe over southern England. It decided in fact, whether they were to meet them at all.
From 25 May – 28 May 1940, Churchill and Halifax fought the Battle for Britain in the five-member British War Cabinet. By 28 May 1940 it seemed as if Halifax had the upper hand and Churchill might be forced from office. However Churchill out-manoeuvred Halifax and called a meeting of his 25-member Outer Cabinet. He then delivered the greatest speech of his life in which he convinced every member present that Britain must fight on against Hitler no matter what the costs. At that meeting on 28 May 1940, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill had saved Britain and perhaps Western Civilization from threat of Nazi domination. At that meeting he had won the Second World War.
“At that meeting he had won the Second World War”. That is far from true. Churchill did not win the Second World War then by defeating Lord Halifax’s proposal to make peace with Germany. He simply made it possible for the struggle to continue. In his famous speech of 4 June 1940 there was little talk of victory; only of survival. It consisted almost entirely of bad news. Churchill first of all spoke of the great surrender in France; of the ring of steel closing around the British Isles. He then held out the slender hope that they might hold off the mighty enemy for a time.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.
But the situation was far too desperate to have much confidence the mighty juggernaut could be stopped. Even if Britain prevailed in the defense the Nazis were so immeasurably powerful that a continued fight with Britain’s declining resources would be an exercise in futility. In later years Churchill admitted to almost humbugging his country into continuing. “The method was accepted because everyone realized how near were death and ruin. Not only individual death, which is the universal experience, stood near, but, incomparably more commanding, the life of Britain, her message, and her glory.”
He ended his June 4 speech by invoking things of no practical import: the Empire, more a memory than a real help; the ghosts of shattered states whose insubstantial forces sheltered, more helpless still, in London. The only puissant prospect that Churchill could even remotely descry was the distant possibility that the New World would come to aid of the Old. One wonders whether Churchill believed, more than a year before Pearl Harbor and nearly a year before Hitler brought Russia in against him, that these reinforcements would be forthcoming any more than a dying man might hope for a miracle.
My guess is he did not. In my mind Churchill was logically aware that Britain was beaten. Yet though the facts stared him in the face submission came too hard to his lips to utter them. In truth, the June 4 speech was pure defiance. It contained but one thought. No. No to Hitler. No whatever the cost.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
In the end Churchill could save neither the British Empire nor its world power. But real legacy of the Battle of Britain is the memory of the Few and the inspiration they gave and will give generations hence. In example they live with us still. Buildings crumble to dust, and pomp and circumstance fade. But long after the last relics of the British Empire are gone men will still say of those who lived the great days of 1940: “this was their finest hour.”