May 1940: Part 2
Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 against the backdrop of a rapidly developing military and political crisis in Western Europe.
The Germans invaded Belgium and Holland on May 10 and crossed the Meuse at Sedan on May 13. It was this latter bold military stroke that proved to be the undoing of France as it fell victim to a brilliantly executed ‘Blitzkrieg’ campaign. German tanks and troops poured through weak defences and drove relentlessly into the heart of France in the direction of the Channel ports.
France was gripped with defeatism. On May 15, in a telephone conversation, the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud told Churchill "We are defeated”. On May 16, Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders. He asked: "Where is the strategic reserve?" Gamelin, the French Commander replied “none”. The Germans reached the French coast on May 20 and the evacuation at Dunkirk began on May 27.
Some of the most dramatic British Cabinet meetings in history took place from May 26 – May 28, in this atmosphere of crisis and defeat. The story is brilliantly told in John Lukacs’s ‘Five Days in London’ — a fantastic book for anyone wanting to know more.
Lord Halifax led a group that wanted to sue for peace with Hitler. The arguments were finely balanced and at one point Halifax threatened to resign. This would have undoubtedly led to a collapse of the coalition government, the end of Churchill and potentially a peace deal with the Nazis.
Finally, after three days, Churchill prevailed. His final speech to the Cabinet on May 28 seems to have stiffened their resolve:
“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man [Hitler]. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out… If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground”.
So the course was set and Britain was committed to fighting on against Hitler, alone if necessary.