What If?

Five Days in London, May 1940

by John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 236 pp., $19.95

At dawn on May 10, 1940, Hitler’s armies broke into Belgium and Holland. That same afternoon Winston Churchill took office as prime minister of Great Britain. At 7:30 AM on May 15, Paul Reynaud, the French premier, woke Churchill with the news that German tanks were pouring into France across the Ardennes at Sedan. France, he said, was beaten.

Churchill realized at once the deadly threat to Britain that this posed. On that same afternoon he wrote to President Roosevelt:

As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realise, Mr. President, that the voice and the force of a United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear.

Roosevelt sent a friendly but noncommittal reply to which Churchill answered two days later: “We are determined to persevere to the very end whatever the result of the great battle raging in France may be…. But if American assistance is to play any part it must be available soon.” Churchill should have written “I am determined to persevere…,” because he had yet to persuade his colleagues in the War Cabinet—the inner group set up to decide war policy—that this was the right course. In his War Memoirs Churchill generously concealed that battle so as not to embarrass his former colleagues. John Lukacs has extracted it from the dry official records and transformed it into a gripping historical drama, Five Days in London. He shows that during those crucial five days in May 1940, the fate of Europe and indeed of much of the world depended on the outcome of an argument between just three men. Lukacs makes the drama unfold against a background of many British people’s slow and often placid reactions to the disasters in France and the imminent threat of an enemy invasion.

Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, had been forced out of office by a revolt in the House of Commons, but he still enjoyed strong support in the Conservative Party. The party leaders first offered to the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, that they would recommend him to the King as Chamberlain’s successor, but he declined. The next choice fell on Churchill, really because there was no one else for the job.

Churchill shared his responsibilities with four colleagues in the War Cabinet. They included Neville Chamberlain, who had agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938 in return for Hitler’s promise that a slice of that country was his last territorial demand, and the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, a pillar of the Church and ex-viceroy of India, who had naively judged Hitler to be just another nationalist leader like Gandhi. Lukacs writes that in July 1938, Hitler’s adjutant, Captain Fritz …

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