Five days that saved the world

Seventy years ago, civilization hung in the balance — and Churchill tipped it

Appeared in Winnipeg Free Press – May 29, 2010

You would not be reading this, nor I writing it, if it were not for the five most important days of the 20th century — 70 years ago this week.

Those who lived through it, those living today, would have had very different lives in a very different world.

In May 1940, Germany’s Wehrmacht, the Second World War’s best army as most historians agree, had surged over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and northern France, and just 10 days after starting its offensive had reached the English Channel — a goal Germany couldn’t attain in the four years of the First World War.

Many people in Britain, including or especially those in government and the elites who had information about how desperate the situation was, despaired. Many others, living their ordinary daily lives, didn’t know the graveyard was quite as scary as it was until they had successfully whistled past it.

There, around the Channel, total victory in its grasp, the Wehrmacht slowed, hesitated, for reasons still disputed, one of the great puzzles of military history. It’s theorized that Hitler paused because he himself couldn’t believe his lightning triumph, because he thought Britain would surely be forced to plead for peace and the war to end, even that he had a soft spot for the British.

The certain thing is that the French and British armies had been defeated, as was the so-called “appeasement” policy of the bitterly disillusioned Neville Chamberlain.

On May 10, Chamberlain was replaced as prime minister by a man whom many Britons scorned as unscrupulous, crudely ambitious, a dangerous warmonger, an irritating gadfly, a widely distrusted yesterday’s man with a record of failure — Winston Churchill. The king, George VI, preferred the chilly aristocrat in manner as well as title, Lord Halifax, for the job.

Days later, on May 13, Churchill uttered in the Commons his now-famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears.” Words now treasured were not uncritically hailed at the time (like Abraham Lincoln’s few words at Gettysburg in 1863, buried under the hours-long speech of a forgotten rhetorician). Many of Churchill’s own Conservatives were unimpressed.

Defeatism hung in the air and was more frankly expressed in diaries made public only decades later. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t ready to be drawn in to a European war, Robert McCormick’s powerful Chicago Tribune was militantly isolationist, and the Nazis weren’t without American sympathizers of varying degree, including flying hero Charles Lindbergh and Canadian-born broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin.

This set up the drama of May 24-28 that historian John Lukacs brilliantly detailed in Five Days in London: May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999).

In those few days Churchill won over a demoralized war cabinet and a distrustful Commons. Almost overnight he rallied Britons under the gravest threat in their modern history. Above all, in those days, too, a feat was pulled off that beggars the language — the word “miracle” got more exercise than any to describe it — the rescue of the routed British and French troops from Dunkirk.

Churchill himself had expected about 50,000 soldiers to make it back. In fact about 340,000 scrambled aboard ships and private boats of every description. In some quarters it was even eagerly described as a victory (does anyone still remember the propagandistic boys’ book Dave Dawson at Dunkirk?). It was not that.

Exactly 70 years and one day ago the British foreign office circulated a top-secret plan for the flight of the royal family, the government and valuables to some part of the empire. Churchill rejected this out of hand: “I believe we shall make them rue the day they try to invade our island. No such discussion can be permitted.”

Historian Lukacs is impressively minimalist in assessing what Churchill accomplished: He didn’t — as so many people everywhere expected — lose the war. Churchill and Britain could not have won the war — that was accomplished by the U.S. and the Soviet Union — but Churchill could have lost it. And in those five days Hitler was never again so close to winning it. There is a strong case that those five days constitute the turning point of the war.

Long years have passed. Like all ambitious people in our dynamic society, young historians don’t make their mark by following in well-worn footsteps. So, no surprise, some — like John Charmley (born 1955, comfortably after the events) — are Chamberlain men. Charmley made the Chamberlain case in Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989).

He and other anti-Churchillians argue that Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was correct. Chamberlain was motivated by his certainty that war would strip Britain of its power and empire, and the Soviet Union would dominate Europe. Right on both counts.

But the alternative in May 1940? Graham Greene’s remark, that life is a choice between black and grey, was never more applicable.

You’d have to be a Charley, as the English say, to have trusted any peace with Hitler. No seer could be sufficiently clear-eyed to predict in detail what would have followed. But Nazi sympathizers everywhere, like British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, surely would have been exalted. Leadership would have passed, likely without decorous parliamentary transition, to those willing or reluctantly forced to make deals with Hitler. The extremes that are so alike, fascism and communism, might still be slugging it out, the democratic middle crushed, personal freedom vanished.

Perhaps — or surely? — the human spirit would not have been crushed. But it would have been a terrible struggle to regain the rule of law, freedom from arbitrary power, and decent lives for the majority under democracy, which Churchill famously described as the worst system of government, except for all the others.

Permit a personal memoir, often recalled. I suppose I’m a rare practising journalist who remembers, with a child’s accurate reading of adult emotion when the facts are beyond grasping, those indescribably tense days. Perhaps I picked it up from table talk, my father being a Canadian Press teletype operator and mechanic (who, as I proudly responded to a Grade 1 teacher’s question, was “the first man in the city to know the news” — close to the mark in terms of news from beyond town, read off the clattering teletype).

So somewhere about that time my five-year-old self asked my mother: “Will the Germans win the war?”

“Oh, no,” she replied, “God would never allow that.” Moms being as all-knowing as they are all-powerful, I was content. But, looking back, I wonder if I detected her unease.

Do many people today know or care about those five days? Is such history taught to the young, or has history been shrunk to fashionable soft “social studies,” issues concerning minority and women’s rights, and racist and imperialist wrongs?

© Trevor Lautens, 2010