1945: Mountbatten meets the US Chiefs and Churchill

The Prime Minister has never been so friendly to me in his life. He kept on telling me what a good job I had done, and how I had vindicated his judgement when he selected me for the job. He said: ‘When the war is over I am going to arrange a great ovation for you and for your battle-green jungle warriors. When we get back to London come and see me and we will talk about your future, as I have great plans in store.’ It was a mournful and eerie feeling to sit there talking plans with a man who seemed so confident that they would come off, and I felt equally confident that he would be out of office within 24 hours.

Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia: Mountbatten conferrring with Lieutenant General J W Stilwell Commander-in-Chief US Forces in China, Burma and India.
Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia: Mountbatten conferrring with Lieutenant General J W Stilwell Commander-in-Chief US Forces in China, Burma and India.

At the beginning of the war Lord Louis Mountbatten, at the time a minor member of the British Royal family (and uncle of the relatively unknown naval officer Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark) had been commander of a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Kelly. He had saved the Kelly after a torpedo attack in 1940 and had still been commanding her when she was sunk off Crete the following year.

He had then made extraordinary progression through the ranks under the patronage of Winston Churchill. First he had been appointed Chief of Combined Operations and had had ultimate responsibility for the Dieppe Raid.

Then Churchill had elevated him to the even more prestigious position of Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, a post equivalent in stature to Eisenhower’s position in Europe. It was in this role that he arrived at the Potsdam conference in Berlin on 24th July, where he was expecting to discuss the finer points of the final attack on Japan, which he expected to take the war into 1946. On the day that he arrived he had informal meetings with the most senior US officers and then with Churchill:

I can never describe the friendliness of the reception I had from the American Chiefs of Staff. Hard-boiled old Fleet Admiral King took my hand in both his hands and shook it a dozen times with great warmth. Bill Somervell appeared even more pleased to see me. General Marshall and General Arnold invited me to come back and have a drink with them.

Then Marshall swore me to secrecy and said he would reveal to me the greatest secret of the war.

It appeared that the team of British and American scientists who had been working on the release of atomic energy had atlast succeeded in utilizing the release of energy from the fission of element 2.3 5, an isotope of uranium, and that when this had been applied in a bomb the results had been quite shattering. An experimental bomb exploded in New Mexico and had had unbelievable results.

A steel girder structure half a mile away had either melted or been vaporized; there was nothing left of it. It was estimated that all human beings within a radius of two or three miles would be killed, and those beyond this radius for a mile or two, would be so burned as to be unlikely to recover.

Marshall told me they now had an atomic bomb on the way over to Okinawa, ready for release round about the 5th August.

I said: ‘This will surely mean the end of the war within the next few days, or anyway within the next few weeks?’

Marshall and Arnold both agreed that this was so, and that they couldn’t possibly visualize the war going on beyond the end of 1945 in any case.

I then asked why the meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff that afternoon had given the official date of the end of the war as the 15th November 1946; and they pointed out that on account of secrecy the planners had had to work without knowledge of the bomb’s existence, and that this was a fair estimate of how long it might have taken if there had been no bomb.

Finally General Marshall reminded me of my promise not to tell a living soul — not even the Prime Minister, with whom General Marshall knew I was dining that night.

After dinner we moved into the study, and the Prime Minister closed the doors. After looking round in a conspiratorial manner, he said: ‘I have a great secret to tell you’ — and proceeded to tell me the story of the atomic bomb.

He said it would be dropped on the 5th and that the Japanese would surrender on the 15th. He advised me to take all necessary steps to compete with the capitulation as soon after this date as possible. I therefore sent a telegram to Boy Browning to take all the necessary steps, without of course being able to give him the reason.

I had come back convinced that Labour would get in by a handsome majority and was astounded to find that the Prime Minister and indeed everyone I met at Potsdam was quite confident that the Conservative Party would get in.

The most pessimistic majority I heard was 30, and the Prime Minister himself told me he thought he would have 1OO.

The Prime Minister has never been so friendly to me in his life. He kept on telling me what a good job I had done, and how I had vindicated his judgement when he selected me for the job. He said: ‘When the war is over I am going to arrange a great ovation for you and for your battle-green jungle warriors. When we get back to London come and see me and we will talk about your future, as I have great plans in store.’

It was a mournful and eerie feeling to sit there talking plans with a man who seemed so confident that they would come off, and I felt equally confident that he would be out of office within 24 hours.

However, I was particularly glad to have a three-hour heart-to-heart talk with him, when he was in such a good mood. It would indeed have been terrible if I had not been able to see him until after his defeat at the elections. For once he did not keep me up late, and I was home before midnight.

See Personal Diary of Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, 1943-1946.

Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, sits astride a captured Japanese 75mm gun while addressing men of the Royal Armoured Corps in Mandalay, 21 March 1945.
Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, sits astride a captured Japanese 75mm gun while addressing men of the Royal Armoured Corps in Mandalay, 21 March 1945.

1945: Churchill entertains Truman and Stalin in Berlin

To lighten the proceedings we changed places from time to time, and the President sat opposite me. I had another very friendly talk with Stalin, who was in the best of tempers and seemed to have no inkling of the momentous information about the new bomb the President had given me. He spoke with enthusiasm about the Russian intervention against Japan, and seemed to expect a good many months of war, which Russia would wage on an ever—increasing scale, governed only by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Winston Churchill, President Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam conference, 23 July 1945.
Winston Churchill, President Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam conference, 23 July 1945.
Josef Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Truman with their staffs around the conference table at Potsdam.
Josef Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Truman with their staffs around the conference table at Potsdam.

The final conference of the Allied leaders continued in Potsdam Berlin. Events far away from the conference table were to have a far reaching effect on the post war world, and most of those around the table were to be very surprised by the way they turned out.

The most senior U.S. delegates had now received confirmation of the success of the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico. The whole question of how they might deal with Japan now took on an entirely different character. For the moment Truman had only told Churchill but not yet Stalin.

It was thought that the news would be a stunning revelation to Stalin, especially given the implications of such a weapon being held by western democracies. In fact Stalin was very much better informed, through his spies, of the state of nuclear research, than either Churchill or Truman could possibly imagine.

There was also a ripple of uncertainty was running through the British camp too. At home the British were conducting a General Election to choose a new government. Churchill had been assured by his Conservative Party officials that they were on course to another victory and that he would soon be formally re-instated as Prime Minister.

As a gesture to the electoral situation that they found themselves in, Churchill’s principal opponent in the election, the Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee had been invited to the conference as part of the British delegation. At this time, within British party politics he was also known by the title “The Leader of the Opposition”.

Churchill recalls some of the atmosphere of the conference in his memoirs:

Frustration was the fate of this final Conference of “the Three”. I have not attempted to describe all the questions which were raised though not settled at our various meetings. I content myself with telling the tale, so far as I was then aware of it, of the atomic bomb and outlining the terrible issue of the German-Polish frontiers. These events dwell with us to-day.

It remains for me only to mention some of the social and personal contacts which relieved our sombre debates. Each of the three great delegations entertained the other two. First was the United States. When it came to my turn I proposed the toast of “The Leader of the Opposition”, adding “whoever he may be”. Mr. Attlee, and indeed the company, were much amused by this. The Soviets’ dinner was equally agreeable, and a very fine concert, at which leading Russian artistes performed, carried the proceedings so late that I slipped away.

It fell to me to give the final banquet on the night of the 23rd. I planned this on a larger scale, inviting the chief commanders as well as the delegates. I placed the President on my right and Stalin on my left. There were many speeches, and Stalin, without even ensuring that all the waiters and orderlies had left the room, proposed that our next meeting should be in Tokyo.

There was no doubt that the Russian declaration of war upon Japan would come at any moment, and already their large armies were massed upon the frontier ready to overrun the much weaker Japanese front line in Manchuria.

To lighten the proceedings we changed places from time to time, and the President sat opposite me. I had another very friendly talk with Stalin, who was in the best of tempers and seemed to have no inkling of the momentous information about the new bomb the President had given me. He spoke with enthusiasm about the Russian intervention against Japan, and seemed to expect a good many months of war, which Russia would wage on an ever—increasing scale, governed only by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Then a very odd thing happened. My formidable guest got up from his seat with the bill-of-fare card in his hand and went round the table collecting the signatures of many of those who were present. I never thought to see him as an autograph-hunter! When he came back to me I wrote my name as he desired, and we both looked at each other and laughed. Stalin’s eyes twinkled with mirth and good—humour.

I have mentioned before how the toasts at these banquets were always drunk by the Soviet representatives out of tiny glasses, and Stalin had never varied from this practice. But now I thought I would take him on a step. So I filled a small-sized claret glass with brandy for him and another for myself. I looked at him significantly. We both drained our glasses at a stroke and gazed approvingly at one another.

See Winston S. Churchill: The Second World War.

British Victory Parade in Berlin: British troops march down the Charlottenburg Chaussee, Berlin.
British Victory Parade in Berlin: British troops march down the Charlottenburg Chaussee, Berlin.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, accompanied by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, inspects tanks of the "Desert Rats" from a half-track vehicle which moved slowly along the long line of troops and armour, during the British Victory parade in Berlin, 21 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, accompanied by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, inspects tanks of the “Desert Rats” from a half-track vehicle which moved slowly along the long line of troops and armour, during the British Victory parade in Berlin, 21 July 1945.

The glorious ‘Few’ who are defending Britain

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at 'A' Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at ‘A’ Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.

The war had now seemingly resolved down to a simple scenario. Britain was under direct threat from a German invasion. At present the Royal Navy stood in the way of any amphibious landing – yet only so long as her ships could be protected from the air. In the ‘narrow seas’ between Britain and the continent of Europe if the Luftwaffe got the upper hand then no ship would be safe.

It was now readily apparent to those within the military command that only the thin line of ‘fighters boys’ of RAF Fighter Command kept Britain safe. It was a stark reality to confront, especially when they met the young men themselves, many of whom were only just out of school.

General Hastings “Pug” Ismay was Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence and Churchill’s principal military adviser, standing between the military establishment and the politicians, he saw the situation as clearly as anyone:

The German Air Force had been at full stretch throughout the Battle of France, and it was not until the first week in July that the Battle of Britain started in earnest.

As usual, the Prime Minister took every opportunity to go and see things for himself, and I accompanied him on many of his visits to fighter stations in Kent and Sussex.

From the moment one set foot on the tarmac, one sensed the tension in the air – the pilots standing by ‘on readiness’, waiting to ‘scramble’ into their machines at a moment’s notice.

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

But they seemed a race apart, and I felt an intruder. They brought to my mind something that I had once read in the Old Testament. I looked it up when I got home. ‘And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.’ [Malachi, chapter III, verse 17]

See The Memoirs of General the Lord Ismay K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O..

Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.

1945: Churchill meets Truman as Trinity is tested

The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.

German women doing their washing at a water hydrant in a Berlin street, near the wreck of a German light armoured car, 3 July 1945.
German women doing their washing at a water hydrant in a Berlin street, near the wreck of a German light armoured car, 3 July 1945.
British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the Chancellery, the spot from which Hitler made many of his speeches. Label British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the ruined Chancellery in Berlin, 5 July 1945.
British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the Chancellery, the spot from which Hitler made many of his speeches, 5 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting a guard of honour of the Scots Guards at British Headquarters, Berlin, soon after his arrival for the 'Big Three' conference at Potsdam.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting a guard of honour of the Scots Guards at British Headquarters, Berlin, soon after his arrival for the ‘Big Three’ conference at Potsdam.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman shake hands on the steps of Truman's residence, "The White House", at Kaiser Strasse, Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman shake hands on the steps of Truman’s residence, “The White House”, at Kaiser Strasse, Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 July 1945.

The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.

The tensions between the Soviet side and the western democracies were now becoming ever more evident. On the face of it the conference would decide the fate of Germany and the where the new boundaries of eastern Europe would lie. In reality much would be determined by the de facto occupation of territory by Soviet troops.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the ruins of Adolf Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the ruins of Adolf Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits in a jeep outside the Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin, Germany on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits in a jeep outside the Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin, Germany on 16 July 1945.
Scene of destruction on part of the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.
Scene of destruction on part of the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

Whatever hopes those attending the conference might have that they could shape the post war world and prevent further wars, new realities were rapidly outstripping their expectations. Thousands of miles away, on the same day, scientists were conducting an experiment, codename Trinity, that would change the course of world history:

Brigadier General Thomas Farrell described the reaction of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the atomic research programme:

Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted “Now!” and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief.

Oppenheimer himself later recalled:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Hitler orders ‘Operation Sealion’ – invade Britain

They are certainly formidable obstructions to most of us especially in the hours of darkness when one is confronted by barriers in the most unexpected places. I am told that Winston is mainly responsible for them and takes the deepest interest in them. He appears to spend a lot of time inspecting our defences all over the country.

Watching out for raiders over London.

There had been some resistance to the appointment of Churchill as Prime Minister within the Conservative party. However his dynamic approach and rousing rhetoric was bringing people round. Senior Conservative Party MP and military insider Sir Cuthbert Headlam observed the new confidence in him even as the physical signs of the threat to the nation became ever more apparent:

16 July

London is rapidly become like a besieged town – or, rather, is being converted into a defended zone.

Whether all the barbed wire defences and machine-gun posts in the Whitehall area are erected to cover the last stand of Winston and the rest of us against the invading Germans, or whether to prevent the government offices being raided by ‘Fifth Columnists’ and parachutists, one does not know. They are certainly formidable obstructions to most of us especially in the hours of darkness when one is confronted by barriers in the most unexpected places.

I am told that Winston is mainly responsible for them and takes the deepest interest in them. He appears to spend a lot of time inspecting our defences all over the country. It is certainly his hour – and the confidence in him is growing on all sides.

See Parliament and Politics in the Age of Churchill and Attlee. The Headlam Diaries 1935-1951

Planning conference at the Berghof, July 1940: Hitler and Admiral Erich Raeder in discussion at a map table. Also present are (l to r) Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, General Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and an unidentified Kriegsmarine staff officer.
Planning conference at the Berghof, July 1940: Hitler and Admiral Erich Raeder in discussion at a map table. Also present are (l to r) Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, General Alfred Jodl, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and an unidentified Kriegsmarine staff officer.

While Britain was gripped by the thought that invasion might come at any day, Hitler was still considering his options. It was only on 16th July that Hitler signed the order for ‘Operation Sealion’:

‘Directive No.16 for Preparations of a Landing Operation against England’.

The preamble ran: ‘Since England, in spite of its militarily hopeless situation, still gives no recognizable signs of readiness to come to terms, I have determined to prepare a landing operation against England and, if need be, to carry it out. The aim of this operation is to exclude the English motherland as a basis for the continuation of the war against Germany, and, if it should be necessary, to occupy it completely.’

[emphasis added]

This was a lukewarm approach to a possible invasion. Most of his military advisers knew very well that it was going to be impossible to carry out the directive that summer. They knew as well as Churchill, who had already made his own assessment of the prospects for invasion, of the immense risks such an undertaking would involve.

Secret Churchill Memo – German invasion unlikely

40 destroyers are now disposed between the Humber and Portsmouth, the bulk being in the narrowest waters. The greater part of these are at sea every night, and rest in the clay. They would therefore probably encounter the enemy vessels in transit during the night, but also could reach any landing point or points on the front mentioned in two or three hours. They could immediately break up the landing craft, interrupt the landing, and fire upon the landed troops

Local Defence Volunteers soon to be renamed Home Guard
The formation of the Local Defence Volunteers was announced on the 14th May, they were renamed the ‘Home Guard’ on the 22nd July at Churchill’s insistence, despite the cost of replacing the million armbands that had been prepared for them. Many did not get proper weapons until much later in the year.

In a memorandum to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, circulated to the War Cabinet, Winston Churchill set out his views on the practicality of an invasion.

His assessment of the prospects of a German landing placed great weight on the strength of the Royal Navy. He was encouraged by the fact that the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Barham would soon be ready for sea and would enable the creation of further battle groups that could break up any invasion force.

He also felt that the largest German ships were under the close surveillance of the RAF and would not be able to mount a surprise breakout. His one caveat is the need for ‘strong Air support’ necessary to protect the Royal Navy during daylight hours.

I FIND it very difficult to visualise the kind of invasion all along the coast by troops carried in small craft, and even in boats. I have not seen any serious evidence of large masses of this class of craft being assembled, and, except in very narrow waters, it would be a most hazardous and even suicidal operation to commit a large army to the accidents of the sea in the teeth of our very numerous armed patrolling forces.

The Admiralty have over 1,000 armed patrolling vessels, of which two or three hundred are always at sea, the whole being well manned by competent seafaring men. A surprise crossing should be impossible, and in the broader parts of the North Sea the invaders should be an easy prey, as part of their voyage would be made by daylight.

Behind these patrolling craft are the flotillas of destroyers, of which 40 destroyers are now disposed between the Humber and Portsmouth, the bulk being in the narrowest waters. The greater part of these are at sea every night, and rest in the day. They would therefore probably encounter the enemy vessels in transit during the night, but also could reach any landing point or points on the front mentioned in two or three hours. They could immediately break up the landing craft, interrupt the landing, and fire upon the landed troops, who, however lightly equipped, would have to have some proportion of ammunition and equipment carried on to the beaches from their boats.

The Flotillas would, however, need strong Air support from our fighter aircraft during their intervention from dawn onwards. The provision of the Air fighter escort for our destroyers after daybreak is essential to their most powerful intervention on the beaches.

Churchill’s conclusion was that the Army had the space and time to regroup and reform inland, rather than be dissipated around the coast:

[I hope] that you will be able to bring an ever larger proportion of your formed Divisions back from the coast into support or reserve, so that their training may proceed in the highest forms of offensive warfare and counterattack, and that the coast, as it becomes fortified, will be increasingly confided to troops other than those of the formed Divisions, and also to the Home Guard.

See TNA CAB 66/9/44

In many ways it is a very re-assuring assessment. It was in fact largely in accord with the assessments being made by the Germans themselves, many of whom, particularly in the Navy, thought that an invasion of Britain in 1940 was an impossibility.

Nevertheless this was a secret assessment. Preparations for a possible invasion were proceeding apace across the country. The mobilisation of tens of thousands of men into the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard, was transforming the outlook of the civilian population. Churchill was not going to undermine the general stiffening of resolve by going public with the notion that invasion was impracticable.

For more on the Home Guard see The Spitfire Site.

HMS NELSON with HMS BARHAM in the background.
HMS NELSON with HMS BARHAM in the background.
1940 or 1941, on board the Battleship HMS Barham -Taking on board 15" shells.
1940 or 1941, on board the Battleship HMS Barham -Taking on board 15″ shells.
Sponging out the 15" guns after being in action.
Sponging out the 15″ guns after being in action.

Churchill’s speech is welcomed

On the other hand there was widespread comment on his delivery and his references to France have brought a recrudescence of anti-French feeling. The latency of anti-French feeling must never be forgotten. A few days ago sympathy swamped it but it found indirect expression in a common phrase ‘At last we have no Allies, now we fight alone’.

There has never been much sympathy with the French point of view but there are some indications that the present wave of anti-French feeling is bringing to the surface antagonism against ‘French politicians’.

The Ministry of information had the difficult task of keeping the public informed without causing unnecessary alarm.

In the early stages of the war the Ministry of Information had shown itself to be helplessly out of touch with the British people. Its earliest propaganda posters were widely considered to be crude and counter-productive. In an effort to get a better appreciation of the public mood at large and the general state of morale the Ministry formed the Home Intelligence department to conduct surveys of public attitudes.

During the dramatic events of the spring and summer 1940 the Home Intelligence department was reporting on a daily basis, drawing on material that was reported from around the country by regional officers. Additional material came from the Mass Observation studies, whose observers some-times eavesdropped on conversations in Public houses and other meeting places, to judge the national outlook. As time went more formal face to face surveys were also introduced, in order to bring more rigour to the process.

WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 1940

On the whole there is slightly less depression today but people are reluctant to discuss the situation and are awaiting the publication of Hitler’s terms to France.

Churchill’s speech was awaited anxiously and when heard was the subject of varied reactions. What he said was considered courageous and hopeful and the speech was welcomed for its frankness. ‘He gives bad news frankly’, ‘Cool and businesslike”, ‘The sort of facts and figures we want’.

On the other hand there was widespread comment on his delivery and his references to France have brought a recrudescence of anti-French feeling. The latency of anti-French feeling must never be forgotten. A few days ago sympathy swamped it but it found indirect expression in a common phrase ‘At last we have no Allies, now we fight alone’.

There has never been much sympathy with the French point of view but there are some indications that the present wave of anti-French feeling is bringing to the surface antagonism against ‘French politicians’.

See TNA INF 1/264

Churchill ‘The battle of Britain is about to begin …’

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’

Winston Churchill: appointed Prime Minister on 10th May 1940

Churchill made another rousing speech to the House of Commons, following his earlier ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’  and his ‘We will fight them on the beaches’. Single handedly he was changing the mood of the nation with some of the most memorable rhetoric ever to appear in the English language. Now the phrase ‘This was their finest hour’ encapsulated the defiant mood of the nation as it fought on alone.

He did not use the phrase “Battle of Britain” as is commonly supposed, the original text referred to the ‘battle of Britain’. Nor was he referring specifically to the air battle over Britain that was to unfold later that summer. The general term “Battle of Britain” did not become a common reference to the struggle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe over Britain in July-August 1940 until a booklet of that title was published by the Air Ministry in the spring of 1941.

What General Weygand called the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

Winston Churchill's speech as reported by the Daily Sketch.
Winston Churchill’s speech as reported by the Daily Sketch.

Meanwhile the remaining British forces in France were being evacuated as quickly as possible.

RAF personnel on the deck of a ship during the evacuation from France, c. 18 June 1940.
RAF personnel on the deck of a ship during the evacuation from France, c. 18 June 1940.

Churchill prophetic as Germans reach the Seine

The French Army put up a fierce resistance along the Seine and had some notable successes against the invading forces. Ultimately they had no answer to the German Blitzkrieg tactics which saw deep penetrating manoeuvres by the Panzers, which outflanked their defensive positions. Rommel was to lead his Division in a hundred kilometre drive forward in just two days.

Erwin Rommel commanded 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France. They were frequently far in advance of the rest of the German Army and earnt the nickname the ‘Ghost Division’ because their exact location was often unknown.
The German Panzers, deployed in Blitzkrieg tactics had caught the French off balance from the very start.
The German Panzers, deployed in Blitzkrieg tactics had caught the French off balance from the very start.
German motorcycle unit somewhere in France.
German motorcycle unit somewhere in France.

The French Army put up a fierce resistance along the Seine and had some notable successes against the invading forces. Ultimately they had no answer to the German Blitzkrieg tactics which saw deep penetrating manoeuvres by the Panzers, which outflanked their defensive positions. Rommel was to lead his Division in a hundred kilometre drive forward in just two days. The Luftwaffe had by now almost complete air supremacy not just air superiority, giving them complete freedom to support the land forces.

On the 9th June the French Government learnt that German forces were just 50 miles from Paris. They prepared to join the mass exodus of the population themselves.

By this time British were recognising that the French cause was probably lost. Although further British troops were being sent to France and the idea of a Anglo-French redoubt in Britanny was being mooted, the realist in Churchill recognised that France was probably lost. On the 9th June he wrote a remarkably prophetic letter to his friend General Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa:

9.VI.40

Prime Minister to General Smuts

We are of course doing all we can both from the air and by sending divisions as fast as they can be equipped to France. It would be wrong to send the bulk of our fighters to this battle, and when it was lost, as is probable, be left with no means of carrying on the war.

I think we have a harder, longer, and more hopeful duty to perform. Advantages of resisting German air attack in this Island, where we can concentrate very powerful fighter strength, and hope to knock out four or five hostiles to one of ours, are far superior to fighting in France, where we are inevitably outnumbered and rarely exceed two to one ratio of I destruction, and where our aircraft are often destroyed at exposed aerodromes.

This battle does not turn on the score or so of fighter squadrons we could transport with their plant in the next month. Even if by using them up we held the enemy, Hitler could immediately throw his whole [air] strength against our undefended Island and destroy our means of future production by daylight attack.

The classical principles of war which you mention are in this case modified by the actual quantitative data. I see only one sure way through now, to wit, that Hitler should attack this country, and in so doing break his air weapon.

If this happens he will be left to face the winter with Europe writhing under his heel, and probably with the United States against him after the Presidential election is over.

Am most grateful to you for cable. Please always give me your counsel, my old and valiant friend.

See Winston S. Churchill: Their Finest Hour (The Second World War)

The destruction of war in France, June 1940.
The destruction of war in France, June 1940.
French soldiers as prisoners of war, June 1940.
French soldiers as prisoners of war, June 1940.
German motorcycle combinations contributed to the rapid advance.
German motorcycle combinations contributed to the rapid advance.

Churchill: ‘We shall never surrender’

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

Ships off the beaches at Dunkirk, c.3 June 1940. Smoke billows from burning oil storage tanks.
Ships off the beaches at Dunkirk, c.3 June 1940. Smoke billows from burning oil storage tanks.

Winston Churchill made another of his great speeches on the 4th June 1940. He began by outlining the fears that many people had held when they learnt that the British Expeditionary Force had been encircled:

When a week ago to-day I asked the House to fix this afternoon as the occasion for a statement, I feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history. I thought — and some good judges agreed with me — that perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be re-embarked. But it certainly seemed that the whole of the French First Army and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force north of the Amiens-Abbeville gap, would be broken up in the open field or else would have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition.

These were the hard and heavy tidings for which I called upon the House and the nation to prepare themselves a week ago. The whole root and core and brain of the British Army, on which and around which we were to build, and are to build, the great British Armies in the later years of the war, seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity.

He went on to describe the miracle that had occurred, and to praise the Royal Air Force its part in the rescue.

A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not harry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead.

We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force.

He concluded with these rousingly defiant words:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Read the whole speech at They Work for You

German troops look out over the English channel with the wreckage of British equipment behind them