Lord Halifax
Lord Halifax; drawing by David Levine


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.1

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 Wiedemann, visited Halifax in his office. According to Wiedemann, Halifax bid him goodbye, saying that he “would like to see as the culmination of his work the Führer entering London at the side of the King amid the acclamations of the English people.” Conscious of his exalted rank on inheriting his viscountcy, he had instructed his daughters to address him as “Lord Halifax.”2 The other two members of the War Cabinet were the rather silent Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, both leaders of the Labour Party who had just been invited to join the government in the interest of national unity.

The King and most members of the Conservative Party trusted Chamberlain and regarded Churchill as an untrustworthy adventurer. Churchill was aware of this and did not yet feel secure in his job. Hitler was confident that Churchill would not last; perhaps the many British peers who pandered to him in the 1930s, like Lord Darlington and his friends described in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, had given him that illusion. Lord Darlington invites them to his country seat for the weekend to meet Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador; Lord Darlington had swallowed the Nazi creed so far as to dismiss his two hard-working and innocent Jewish maids. In the real world, Lord Astor organized house parties for Ribbentrop and influential British Nazi sympathizers at Cliveden, his country seat on the Thames; Chamberlain rented his house in elegant Eaton Square to Ribbentrop while he lived at his official residence; and Lord Rothermere, the owner of a newspaper empire that included the conservative Daily Mail, telegraphed Hitler in 1938: “Mein Führer, your star is rising higher and higher and I wish you every success.” Lukacs does not mention that highly placed British and American officials dismissed reports of concentration camps and Nazi atrocities as Jewish propaganda right up until 1945, when the advancing Allied armies confirmed them.


According to Reynaud’s Memoirs, the French disaster need not have happened. The German General Gunther Blumentritt, who was in charge of the breakthrough at Sedan, recalled meeting no serious resistance there. Reynaud wrote in his memoirs that, despite several warnings, this sector had been manned by a poorly officered army corps equipped with neither antitank nor antiaircraft guns. King Leopold III of the Belgians had warned General Maurice Gustave Gamelin, the French commander in chief, that the Germans’ main thrust would take place around Sedan. French intelligence had informed Gamelin of intense air reconnaissance over the area and a buildup of military supplies on the German border with Luxembourg, and the French military attaché in Bern informed Reynaud that the attack was planned for between May 8 and 10, but, according to Reynaud’s memoirs, “Gamelin did not change his plans by one iota.” Few people take notice of what they are told.

The Allies could muster nearly twice as much heavy artillery, nearly half as many and better tanks, and nearly a third more warplanes than the Germans, and they were confident of their superior strength. Hitler expected a protracted war, and the German High Command doubted that their attack would succeed.3 Its success was due to the weakness of the French defenses near Sedan and to General Heinz Guderian’s new strategy of concerted attacks by tanks and aircraft, to which the ponderous French war machine was too slow to respond. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who was in overall command, called its success miraculous. Ernest May writes in his recent book, Strange Victory: “The essential thread in the story of Germany’s victory over France hangs on the imaginativeness of German war planning and the corresponding lack of imaginativeness on the Allied side…. They neglected to prepare for the possibility of surprise.”4

On the day after receiving Reynaud’s grim news, Churchill flew to Paris, where he saw the ominous spectacle of the Foreign Ministry’s archives on fire in the garden behind the Quai d’Orsay. Gamelin told him that German armored divisions had broken through on a fifty-mile-wide front, and had been followed immediately by truckloads of infantry. When Churchill asked where his strategic reserves and his maneuverable troops were deployed, Gamelin replied that he had none. In response to Reynaud’s desperate plea for help Churchill telegraphed London (using Hindustani as a code), asking for another ten fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force to be sent to France. He did so reluctantly because he foresaw that they would soon be needed for the defense of Britain, and he later refused to send any more.

One of Churchill’s first acts was to dismiss from the larger twenty-five-member Cabinet the chief appeasers, Sir Samuel Hoare and Sir John Simon, and he also dismissed Sir Horace Wilson, the éminence grise in the Cabinet Office, and he replaced them with men resolved to fight the Germans. As the news from France got worse, Churchill flew to Paris again on May 22, accompanied by chief of the General Staff, Sir John Dill. They heard that German Panzer divisions had reached the English Channel. This meant that the British army of some 200,000 men, the Belgian army, and a large French army were surrounded on three sides and faced with being either annihilated or taken prisoner unless they could escape to England from Dunkirk, the only port still open (see the map on page 38). Reynaud had by now replaced Gamelin with the seventy-three-year-old World War I veteran General Maxime Weygand, who presented Churchill and Dill with a joint plan of action. French, British, and Belgian armies were to attack the German bulge from the north and another French army was to attack it from the south.

But was it not too late? Alone with Reynaud afterward, Churchill complained that Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, had been left without orders from the French High Command for an entire week, so that the chance for a successful counterattack had been missed. Faced with the alternative of mounting a counterattack that was doomed to fail, or saving the only army Britain had, Gort ordered it to retreat to Dunkirk, and the War Cabinet supported his decision a few hours later.

In London, on May 25, Halifax took the initiative in what he conceived as the only way to save Britain. He invited Signor Giuseppe Bastianini, the Italian ambassador, to the Foreign Office to see him. Using diplomatic circumlocution, Halifax sounded out Bastianini to explore with what concessions—perhaps over Gibraltar and Malta—Mussolini could be bribed to keep Italy out of the war, and to intervene with Hitler in order to call a conference for a “general European settlement.” The same idea had led Halifax to visit Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Schacht in 1937 when they all pulled the wool over his eyes. Hitler had assured Halifax of his peaceful intentions, although a few days before, he had assembled his top generals and admirals and told them to prepare for a major war within five years. Neither in his diaries nor in his memoirs does Halifax mention his approach to Bastianini.


At 10:00 PM on May 25, Churchill called a meeting of the Defence Committee where he said that he would not be at all surprised if the Germans made a peace offer to the French. Lukacs writes that “this was extraordinary. Churchill knew nothing about the sorry deliberations of the French high council, which had adjourned in Paris only an hour or so before.” That council had debated whether France was bound by its treaty of alliance with Britain not to enter into unilateral negotiations with Germany. Weygand and the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain, hero of Verdun in World War I, whom Reynaud had invited to join his government, favored negotiations before the army was completely destroyed. Reynaud proposed flying to London to tell the British that France would continue the struggle if only to save its honor, but Weygand insisted that the army must be preserved as the last instrument of order (not to save the lives of his soldiers).

On Sunday, May 26, Reynaud and a French delegation came again to confer with the War Cabinet. Reynaud told the Cabinet that Mussolini was about to declare war, which would force France to divert parts of its army to defend its frontier with Italy and expose its ships in the Mediterranean to Italian attacks. He asked whether they could not try to persuade Mussolini to change his mind by offering him a formula that would satisfy his amour propre in the event of an Allied victory, because Mussolini would find himself in difficulties if the German lost the battle for France. Reynaud reported that both Weygand and Pétain favored an armistice, but Churchill, “with the courage of a lion,” rejected any concession to Mussolini. At lunch alone with Churchill, Reynaud told him of the near hopelessness of the French military position and hinted that if he refused to sign the peace terms imposed by the Germans, he might be forced out of office.

In Paris later that evening, Paul Henri Spaak, the Belgian foreign minister, awaited Reynaud at the airport to tell him that King Leopold of the Belgians was going to capitulate, which would exacerbate the perils to the British and French armies that had come to Belgium’s rescue. When the War Cabinet met again that evening Churchill said:

If France could not defend herself, it was better that she should get out of the war rather than that she should drag us into a settlement which involved intolerable terms. There was no limit to the terms which Germany would impose upon us if she had her way.

Halifax, on the other hand, and to some extent Chamberlain still believed that, with French mediation, Italy could be bought off by territorial concessions and prevented from entering the war on Germany’s side, and that it would be in Mussolini’s interest to arrange a conference for a “general European settlement.” Toward the end of the May 26 meeting Halifax presented a draft which he attributed to Reynaud, but which Lukacs suspects was his own:

If Signor Mussolini will co-operate with us in securing a settlement of all European questions which safeguard[s] the independence and the security of the Allies, and could be the basis of a just and durable peace for Europe, we will undertake at once to discuss, with the desire to find solutions, the matters in which Signor Mussolini is primarily interested.

Lukacs concludes that Reynaud had hoped to buy off Mussolini, while Halifax had wanted him to mediate with Hitler. Alexander Cadogan, the permanent secretary of the Foreign Office, summed the meeting up in his diary:

He [Churchill] is against final appeal, which Reynaud wanted, to Muss. He may be right there. Settled nothing much. W.S.C. too rambling and romantic and sentimental and temperamental. Old Neville still best of the lot.5

Churchill opposed the approach to Mussolini because he believed that Hitler would have regarded it with contempt, that the Dominions and the rest of the world would have interpreted it as Britain suing for peace, and that at home it would have broken the will to fight. Churchill was convinced that Hitler would have imposed humiliating conditions and would not have agreed to any settlement that did not leave him in complete control of Europe. Besides, as Chamberlain found out to his cost after Munich, and as Stalin would discover in the year that followed, agreements with Hitler were worthless. An approach would have been a fatal step.

Where did “Old Neville” stand? This was crucial, because Churchill’s position would have become untenable if both Halifax and Chamberlain had opposed him. Chamberlain was still leader of the Conservative Party with a large majority in the House of Commons. After he had been dis-credited for having believed Hitler’s promise that a takeover of the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia constituted “his last territorial demand,” Chamberlain realized that Hitler could not be trusted, and in that he agreed with Churchill. On the other hand, Halifax believed, and historians such as John Charley still maintain today,6 that to save the British Empire and prevent a long-drawn-out war, a peace with Hitler should have been attempted, especially in the spring of 1941, after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz on British cities had shown Hitler that Britain could not be defeated. Goebbels’s record of a telephone conversation with Hitler on June 25, 1940, suggests what this peace would have been like:

Call from the Führer…. Does not yet know for certain whether he will proceed against England. Believes that the Empire must be preserved if at all possible. For if it collapses, then we shall not inherit it, but foreign and even hostile powers will take it over. But if England will have it no other way, then she must be beaten to her knees. The Führer, however, would be agreeable to peace on the following basis: England out of Europe, colonies and mandates returned. Reparations for what was stolen from us after the World War…. England must not be allowed to get off easily this time.7

Hitler’s idea of ruling the Empire was made clear by his advice to Halifax at Berchtesgaden in 1937 concerning the British troubles in India: “Shoot Gandhi, and if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Con-gress; and if that does not suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established.” Hitler thought that this was the way a superior race must behave.8


Hitler may actually have planned to fulfill Halifax’s dream in 1938 by setting up a puppet king and government in Britain after a successful invasion. There is no direct evidence for this, but in his Memoirs, Walter Schellenberg, the head of Hitler’s foreign intelligence service, writes that in July 1940, Ribbentrop summoned him to convey Hitler’s order either to kidnap the Duke of Windsor (the deposed King Edward VIII) and his American-born wife or to lure them into Hitler’s orbit. At the time the duke and duchess were on a visit to Portugal, and Spanish friends had invited them to a hunt near the Spanish border. Schellenberg was to contact the duke there and offer him fifty million Swiss francs if he agreed to dissociate himself from the British royal family and to move to Spain or Switzerland; if he refused, Schellenberg was to remove him and the duchess by force, but making sure not to injure them. Hitler’s farcical plot failed. The duke canceled his participation at the hunt, and the Portuguese assigned an extra twenty police to guard him. An emissary of Churchill’s arrived to escort the duke and duchess on board a vessel bound for the Bahamas, where Churchill had appointed the duke governor to have him safely out of the way.9

Sunday, May 26, was made a National Day of Prayer; a service in Westminster Abbey was attended by the King and Queen and all the top brass. John Betjeman later satirized the uplifting spirit of such occasions in a poem, quoted by Lukacs, that ends with the stanza:

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen

And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

On Monday, May 27, evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk had begun, but, as Lukacs writes, so far only 7,700 men had been shipped home to England. Churchill sent a message to King Leopold of the Belgians imploring him not to surrender, because it would divide his nation and deliver it into Hitler’s hands, quite apart from its disastrous consequences for his allies. Ignoring this, the King asked the Germans for a cease-fire starting at midnight.

Churchill issued a stern message to his ministers to use confident language in their public pronouncements, because most of the people would refuse to accept defeat, but Mass Observation, an opinion poll of the period, reported that some of the younger housewives would have welcomed Hitler, because “it couldn’t be worse, they’d at least have their husbands back.” Little did they know.

In the morning of May 27, Chamberlain reminded the War Cabinet of the chief of staff’s advice that Britain’s ability to hold out depended on full financial and economic support from the United States, since otherwise Britain would no longer be able to pay for the arms it needed for its defense, but there was as yet no sign of such support, partly because Roosevelt did not yet trust Churchill. Apparently, Roosevelt expected that if England were defeated on land, the British fleet would come to North America, but Churchill warned him not to count on that. Did Churchill mean that a Nazi-backed puppet government might hand the fleet over to Germany?

At the afternoon meeting, the conflict between Halifax and Churchill became acute. Lukacs writes that Halifax confronted Churchill with his own draft memorandum, “A Suggested Approach to Signor Mussolini,” asking him to mediate with Hitler. Chamberlain supported Halifax, believing it to be important for the sake of the French, who should at least be given the chance to negotiate with Italy, but Churchill disagreed and was backed up by Sir Archibald Sinclair, the leader of the Liberal Party, who had joined the meeting, because “any weaknesses on our part would encourage the Germans and the Italians, and it would tend to undermine morale both in this country and in the Dominions.” Greenwood said, “If it got out that we had sued for terms at the cost of ceding British territory, the consequences would be terrible….”

After more discussions Churchill said

that he was increasingly oppressed with the futility of the suggested approach to Mussolini, which the latter would certainly regard with contempt…. The best help we could give to M. Reynaud was to let him feel that, whatever happened to France, we were going to fight it out to the end…. The approach proposed was not only futile, but involved us in a deadly danger.

The argument continued until Halifax finally asked: “Suppose Herr Hitler, being anxious to end the war…, offered terms to France and England, would the Prime Minister be prepared to discuss them?” Churchill gave the conciliatory reply that he “would not join France in asking for terms; but if he were told what the terms offered were, Churchill would be prepared to consider them.” At one point, apparently in the heat of argument with Halifax, Churchill said he would be willing to accept an offer of peace on terms of restoration of German colonies and overlordship of Central Europe; but this may have been no more than a tactical move in his argument with Halifax, suggesting that the Cabinet should wait for such an offer rather than initiating negotiation with Hitler by asking Mussolini to mediate. In any case, Churchill thought such an offer unlikely, and it is a firmly documented historical fact that he refused to approach Mussolini.

At the end of the meeting Halifax told Sir Alexander Cadogan: “I can’t work with Winston any longer.” But Cadogan said: “Nonsense; his rhodomontades probably bore you as much as they do me, but don’t do anything silly under the stress of that.”10 Like Churchill, a descendant of the great duke of Marlborough, Cadogan, son of the 5th Earl Cadogan, and also Halifax were aristocrats whose forebears had made history, and they were unimpressed by Churchill. Halifax complained that he talked “the most frightful rot” and Cadogan was irritated by his being “theatrically bulldogish.” He does seem to have addressed the War Cabinet as if it had been a public meeting. Halifax now asked Churchill to come out into the garden with him. What went on between them is unrecorded, except that Halifax told Cadogan afterward that Churchill had been very affectionate, but Lukacs believes that Churchill impressed upon Halifax that his resignation would open up the gravest national crisis. On the other hand, Churchill could not convince him that asking Mussolini to mediate with Hitler would be futile.

On May 26, Cadogan wrote in his diary: “It is a strain—daily and hourly looking the ugliest facts in the eye…. A non-stop nightmare…. God grant that I can go on without losing faith or nerve. V. tired, but how these others—Chiefs-of-Staff etc. stand up to it, I can’t think.” But of Churchill himself his private secretary, John Colville, wrote in his diary: “Winston’s ceaseless industry is impressive.” He is said to have thrived on crises, but his manner suggests that the strain told on him too. On June 27 his wife, Clementine, wrote to him:

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic and overbearing manner—It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like schoolboys and “take what’s coming to them” and then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders—Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming…. Except for the King the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker you can sack anyone and everyone—Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm.11

His daughter Mary Soames, who edited the letters of her mother and father, believes that Churchill took this advice to heart, writing that “although during the years of his greatest power he could be formidable and unreasonable, many of the people who served directly under him during those dire years have put on record not only their admiration of him as a chief, but also their love for a warm and endearing human being.”

On May 28 the argument between Churchill and Halifax, reported in detail by Lukacs, reached a climax. Halifax said that the Italian embassy wanted the government to give a clear indication that it would welcome a mediation by Italy. Churchill said it was clear that the French purpose was to see Signor Mussolini acting as an intermediary between ourselves and Herr Hitler, but he was determined not to get into this position. He said that Hitler’s terms, if accepted, would put us completely at his mercy; nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered were finished. Halifax argued that nothing in his suggestion could even remotely be described as ultimate capitulation, but Churchill thought that the odds were a thousand to one against decent terms being offered to Britain. Realizing that he could make no more headway, Churchill then asked all twenty-five members of his Cabinet, other than those in the War Cabinet, to meet him in his room in the House of Commons.

After informing them of the difficulties of extricating the army from Dunkirk and stressing the futility of negotiations with Hitler, Churchill said, “Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.” In his War Memoirs he described the scene that followed:

There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering—twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war—surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in.12

Hugh Dalton’s A Labour Minister’s Memoirs confirm Churchill’s description of the scene.13

By contrast, Dalton reports that at one of his first visits to Halifax at the Foreign Office during those critical days, Halifax asked him with a placid air: “Have you heard any of the stories about the possibility of a German invasion? That would be a great bore.”

At seven o’clock that evening the War Cabinet met again. When Churchill told them of his meeting with the other ministers, Halifax brought up a plan of Reynaud’s to appeal to Roosevelt for help. Churchill

thought that an appeal to the United States at the present time would be altogether premature. If we made a bold stand against Germany, that would command their admiration and respect; but a grovelling appeal, if made now, would have the worst possible effect. He therefore did not favour making any approach on the subject at the present time.

Chamberlain did not object. That settled it.

Lukacs concludes that Hitler was never closer to ultimate victory than during those five days in May 1940, and that the one man in Hitler’s way was Churchill. He and Britain could not have won the war without the Soviet Union and the United States, but in May 1940 Churchill, supported by the Cabinet, was the one who did not lose it. Churchill embodied Britain’s undaunted, defiant spirit; thanks to him Britain became the symbol of hope to millions in Nazi-occupied Europe.

To younger readers, those events may now seem almost as remote as the French Revolution, but to those of us who lived through them, the nightmare that Hitler was going to obtain unchallenged domination of Europe is still as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. Lukacs’s book has made me aware that our debt to Churchill for preventing that nightmare come true is even greater than I realized.

On June 4 Dunkirk fell to the Germans, but miraculously nearly 220,000 British and 123,000 French soldiers as well as 34,000 vehicles had by then been evacuated to England. All other equipment was lost, but at least the core of trained men was intact. On June 10 Mussolini declared war on France and Britain. On June 17 Marshal Pétain ousted Reynaud, who had been as adamant as Churchill for fighting on; he was to spend four and a half years in German prison camps. In September the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain and lifted the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion. Goebbels’s diaries are full of his own and Hitler’s frustration at England’s continued resistance, and their violent hatred of Churchill. On June 16, 1941, Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Bolshevism must be destroyed, and with it England will lose its last possible ally on the continent of Europe.”

To cause England that loss seems to have been one of Hitler’s motives for his attack on the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, the German armies invaded Russia, and Britain was no longer fighting alone. On December 11 Hitler assured Churchill’s ultimate triumph by declaring war on the United States.

Lukacs’s story is not new. P.M.H. Bell’s book A Certain Eventuality, published in 1974, contains a brief account of the arguments between Churchill and Halifax,14 but Lukacs has transformed it into a memorable drama. I missed a map showing Sedan, and the positions of the French, British, Belgian, and German armies at the beginning of the battle, because without one I could not quite grasp the deadly threat posed to these armies by the German breakthrough. Lukacs confines himself largely to British accounts of events. He mentions the exchange of visits between Churchill and Reynaud, but to read what went on between them I had to turn to Reynaud’s well-documented memoirs. Quotations from French and German sources would have provided a fuller picture of events, but Lukacs’s exciting account of a decisive event in history has the virtue of brevity.

This Issue

March 8, 2001