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Churchill’s impact

LAURENCE REES: To what extent do you think that it was Churchill who saved Britain in 1940?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, if you look at it in a larger, structural, sense you could say that the Germans are astonished by their success in France and are not really in a position to attack Britain, certainly not to invade Britain in 1940 successfully. So in that sense there is a slight artificiality about the crisis as we might see it now. On the other hand, the fall of France is such an enormous shock to everybody’s expectation that there is a remarkable loss of nerve in May and June 1940; and particularly around the time of Dunkirk, Halifax’s idea that maybe we could find out what Hitler’s peace terms might be by using the Italians. I think Churchill’s response was absolutely right, it would start a slippery slope, would immediately become public knowledge, and would compromise Britain’s continued ability to fight and so on.

So I think Churchill’s determination to draw a line on that was fundamentally right. And also in a larger sense if you think of the three men who were in a position to lead Britain in the spring and summer of 1940: Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill, Chamberlain and Halifax have no real stomach for war. Chamberlain says this and Halifax is almost physically sick at the thought of becoming Prime Minister, whereas Churchill was a soldier in his youth, and there is a sense in which he does relish war, he certainly relishes the challenge of war, and so, as many people had recognised in the thirties, even his critics, he was the man for that particular moment if it ever came, and it did in 1940. So I think there’s a real sense that, as he recognises in his own memoirs, it was an almost providential moment for him and he had belatedly caught up with his own destiny.

LAURENCE REES: And can we begin to answer the counterfactual question: what would have happened to Britain if he hadn’t been there?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Well, counterfactual questions are always difficult. One thing we do know is that he immediately changes the whole tempo of the war effort. This is felt right through Whitehall within days of his arrival, and is symbolised by those famous 'action on this day' stickers that go onto essential documents, and civil servants like Jock Colville who write in their diary of this sense of the whole tempo of everything picking up. He also takes an enormous amount of interest in the military side of things, the planning, the preparations for invasion, the preparation of the air force and certainly it’s unlikely that somebody like Chamberlain would have put a person like Beaverbrook in charge of increasing aircraft production in the summer of 1940.

The two men hated each other, but Churchill’s ability to use mavericks was part of his success, as he wasn’t part of the party machine. So I think that there is little doubt that he does provide something very special for the morale of Britain in 1940 which communicates itself to the public as well as to the politicians and the civil servants. The interesting question, of course, is that by, say, 1942, a lot of people in London at the centre of power feel that Winston has outstayed his time, that he was the man for 1940 but he’s not necessarily the man to see the country through the war. They don’t, in the end, have any alternative and Churchill sees off the opposition. That, in part, is the significance of the battle of El Alamein. But I think a lot of people felt in 1940, yes, he’s the man for this job, but they didn’t necessarily see him as the war leader for the duration.

LAURENCE REES: Germany didn’t really have the capability to invade Britain in 1940, but that’s absolutely not how it was portrayed to people at the time, was it?

DAVID REYNOLDS: I don’t really get the impression that Hitler had the capability to mount a serious invasion in 1940. The way I see it is that the victory in France comes with remarkable speed and it defies even the greatest expectations and the most extreme hopes of how quickly this victory would be won. It then transforms the whole international situation, but Hitler’s perception is really that there is no reason for Britain to carry on this rather pointless struggle.

The Luftwaffe doesn’t have a capability to mount an intense, round the clock bombing of Britain, and there’s also mistakes made about whether to attack the airfields rather than the ports and the cities and things like that. But certainly the Germans don’t have a capability for an invasion in the summer of 1940 and even if they had achieved some kind of air superiority it would still have been very difficult, not least because the German navy has been quite significantly damaged by the invasion of Norway, so the kind of escort facilities and support that would be necessary for the invasion fleet are problematic as well.

Churchill himself said at the time, and certainly says in his memoirs, that he wasn’t really afraid of invasion in 1940. He could imagine the possibility of big raids or something like that on the east coast, but a full scale invasion was less worrying to him than the biggest fear that he had all through the war which was that Britain’s sea lanes would be cut off, and that the country would eventually be starved into submission.