Magazine article The Spectator

Churchill V. Halifax and Butler: The Great Unsolved Mystery of 1940 Deepens

Magazine article The Spectator

Churchill V. Halifax and Butler: The Great Unsolved Mystery of 1940 Deepens

Article excerpt


My last contribution to this space was about something that struck me as extraordinary in History Magazine, a monthly which the BBC publishes; namely, the claim that just after the fall of France in 1940 Churchill considered ordering the arrest, for defeatist activities, of the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the other Foreign Office minister, the under-secretary R.A. Butler.

It was not just the claim that I wrote about as extraordinary. Also extraordinary, I thought, was the way in which the magazine revealed this sensational piece of information to the world: almost as an aside in a short item about another aspect of 1940. It was almost as if the reader was not expected to find it extraordinary at all, but as a given, well known to anyone with an interest in the period.

But I have an interest in the period, and I had never heard it. I have long believed 1940 to be the most important and interesting year in British history, and one of what must be the half-dozen most important years in the history of civilisation; a year perhaps exceeded in importance and interest by no other. Judging by The Spectator's postbag, when almost any aspect of 1940 is mentioned in the magazine this interest is shared by many of its readers. That is why I return to the subject here.

Mr Nigel Jones of History Magazine commented on my piece in a letter in the 15/22 December issue. I had wondered what the source was for the arrest story. Mr Jones said that he had checked it `with the distinguished historian Peter Padfield'. Mr Jones added that `it is Mr Padfield's opinion, based on conversations with Butler's peace intermediary, Kenneth de Courcy, that Churchill certainly did issue such a threat'.

I have now had a chance to consult Mr Padfield's Hess: the Fuhrer's Disciple, which goes into great detail about Hess's dealings with the peace party in Britain in the light of his flight here in 1941. It contains no mention of the arrest threat.

It does indeed mention the late Kenneth de Courcy, a shady figure who was part, or may have been just on the fringes of, what would now be called `the intelligence community'. He wanted to keep us out of war with Germany. That is why he is relevant to the Hess story. (It may or may not be relevant that after the war he was imprisoned for financial irregularities.)

True, Mr Jones never said that the story was in the book, merely that Mr Padfield told him that de Courcy was the source. Perhaps de Courcy told Mr Padfield, but for some reason Mr Padfield did not publish it; yet another mystery concerning a period full of them.

Mr Jones's letter describes Butler as 'defeatist', and ends by saying that, in the event, the `peace party' was `effectively neutralised, and Butler, memorably characterised as "a flabby-faced old coward" on a Private Eye cover, survived into postwar politics to fight (and lose) another day'.

The mention of Butler's 'losing' is presumably a reference to his loss of two struggles for the premiership, in 1957 and 1963. Butler's alleged defeatism seems to have become part of folklore. His reputation as a defeatist, rather than just as a prewar appeaser, derives from something he said privately in 1940. Since then, 'everyone' has assumed that Butler did something bad at that time. …

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