End of the Affair: The Collapse of the Anglo-French Alliance, 1939-1940
Churchill and De Gaulle
Ever since William the Conqueror, Anglo-French relations have been a major preoccupation on both sides of the English Channel. In 1940, when the Wehrmacht bypassed the Maginot line and was on the way to Paris, a crisis arose in this relationship such as had never occurred before. From the British side came a belated proposal to unite the two countries in a common citizenship. But it was too late; the French capitulated, and turned to their aged but greatly venerated Marshal Pétain, with the unsavory Pierre Laval at his elbow, to make the best terms he could with Hitler’s Third Reich, without reference to France’s obligations to its allies.
Much water has flowed under the bridges since this happened, but it remains an episode of great interest and importance, and books on and off the campuses continue to be written about it. For instance, End of the Affair, a well-researched study of the breakdown of the Anglo-French alliance in 1939-1940: highly readable, and a useful work of reference. The title, echoing a famous Graham Greene novel, is not quite apt in that, as things have turned out, the broken-off affair led to a shotgun wedding—common membership of the European Common Market—with ominous rumbles of a divorce to follow. Dr. François Kersaudy, on the other hand, in his book presents the same situation by way of its two leading characters—Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. Temperamentally, I find his treatment more to my taste than Eleanor Gates’s; people always interest me more than happenings. Even so, the two books together cover a fascinating piece of history which loses none of its luster with the passage of time.
The late Sir James (P.J.) Grigg in his early days as a civil servant was Winston Churchill’s secretary when he was chancellor of the exchequer; then, in 1942, he was made secretary of state for war in Churchill’s wartime government. It was he who related to me this curious incident. On VE Day when the Allied victory in Europe was being celebrated, he and Sir Alan Brooke, then chief of the Imperial General Staff, were looking out of the window of the War Office in Whitehall, and saw Sir Winston drive by in an open car, ruddy of face, making his V-sign, and bowing graciously to left and right. “Do you love him or hate him more?” Grigg asked Brooke. After careful consideration Brooke answered that he hated him more.
Probably most of Churchill’s associates, apart from the mere stooges like Lords Ismay and Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken, would, if they were being honest, have answered similarly. Churchill was an inconsiderate and ungracious master, and the excitement of working with him scarcely compensated for the ardors and insults involved. Nonetheless, Grigg and Brooke would have had to agree that Churchill alone could have taken over the government in 1940 when Hitler’s panzers had swept into…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.