Churchill and the British 'Decision' to
Fight on in 1940
The summer of 1940 has gone down in patriotic folklore as Britain's finest hour. After France had collapsed, the British people fought on alone but united, aroused by the miracle of Dunkirk, protected by the heroic RAF, inspired above all by Churchill's bulldog spirit—'victory at all costs', 'blood, toil, tears and sweat', 'we shall fight on the beaches… we shall never surrender'. It is a comforting story—one that is recalled with nostalgia in every national crisis—and its authority was enhanced by Churchill's own categorical statements in his war memoirs. There he wrote: 'Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda' nor was it 'even mentioned in our most private conclaves'. 'It was taken for granted', he assured his readers, that Britain would continue the struggle 'and we were much too busy to waste time upon such unreal, academic issues.'1
It is true that the question of fighting on was never listed explicitly as an item on the War Cabinet's agenda. In every other respect, however, Sir Winston's assurances were, to say the least, disingenuous. The question was all too real, and answers to it were certainly not taken for granted, after the world's best army had been shattered in six weeks leaving Britain isolated with only minimal defences.
This chapter originally appeared in a festschrift for my doctoral supervisor, Sir Harry Hinsley. See
Richard Langhorne, ed., Diplomacy and Intelligence during the Second World War: Essays in Honour
of F.H. Hinsley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 147–67. Earlier versions were
given as papers to the Cambridge Historical Society and the London University Seminar in 20th-
Century British History—the only occasion when I had the chance to meet A. J. P. Taylor.
The essay aroused considerable comment when first published, including a wonderfully apo-
plectic blast from Lord Annan in the London Review of Books, 1 Aug. 1985, p. 5. Since then the
Cabinet debates of May 1940 have become better known. For a dramatic portrayal see John Lukacs,
Five Days in London, May 1940 (New Haven, 1999); cf. the more nuanced picture of Halifax in
Andrew Roberts, 'The Holy Fox': A Life of Lord Halifax (London, 1991), chs 22–4. Neither has
altered the essence of my argument, but for further reflections see David Reynolds, In Command
of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London, 2004), ch. 11.
1 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols., London, 1948–54), ii. 157, 159.