Hitler and his generals had never anticipated the Dunkirk evacuation, principally because they were men of a continental land power. For them the coast was the end of the road. For the British, with their ‘island mentality’, the sea was an open door. The poor impression Hitler had formed of Chamberlain made him confident that the British cabinet would come to him seeking peace terms.
Such an opinion was not without foundation. Lord Halifax, who had so nearly become prime minister in May, certainly did not rule out talks with Hitler. As France collapsed, Halifax was hinting to the still neutral Italians that Britain would be interested in the prospect of a conference to decide the fate of Europe Britain, like France and many other European countries, was subject to the influence of aristocrats and land-owning gentry who worried about the spread of Communism, and the social upheaval that a major European war would bring. They even feared a British victory: Germany weakened by war would open the floodgates to a tide of Soviet expansion. For such people, appeasement of Hitler had been the only sensible prewar policy. Even after war began, there were a great many men of influence who thought that Britain should admit its error and quickly come to terms with the Nazis. So did those in the Foreign Office and the Treasury who anxiously watched the steady depletion of their country’s financial resources.
During the period of the ‘phoney war’ contacts with prewar personal British friends convinced highly placed Nazis that the British were irresolute. German diplomats and secret agents were alerted to the possibility of making peace with Britain. The armistice sought by Marshal Petain on 16 June 1940 gave new urgency to British peace feelers, which were now being extended in Spain, Switzerland and Sweden.
There is no known verbatim record of the conversation that took place when on 17 June 1940 R.A.B. Butler (Halifax’s deputy) met Bjorn Prytz, Sweden’s minister in London. But long after the war Prytz published the telegram he sent to Stockholm as a result of that meeting. According to Swedish records, Butler told Prytz that ‘no opportunity of reaching a compromise peace would be neglected if the possibility were offered on reasonable conditions.” Butler was seeking peace terms on behalf of his boss, and in an unmistakable reference to Churchill and his supporters he added that Lord Halifax specifically promised that ‘no diehards would be allowed to stand in the way.”
Churchill was unable to attend a meeting of the war cabinet at 12.30 pm the following day. One item has since been deleted from the official minutes of that cabinet meeting but the diary notes of Alexander Cadogan, head of the Foreign Office, who was present, provide a tantalizing clue to what the closely guarded secret might be.
“Winston not there writing his speech. No reply from Germans.” It seems that Churchill’s authority was flouted by men determined to sue for peace.
Halifax and Butler were not alone in their quest. Lloyd George, who had been prime minister in the First World War, had seen little chance of a British victory in the Second. The Americans would not enter the war, he said, and he made no secret of his readiness to take over his nation in defeat, as Petain had now taken over France. How many others were of like mind can only be guessed. The Duke of Windsor who as Edward VIII abdicated from the throne in 1936 and his wife, the infamous Mrs. Wallis Simpson, were outspoken admirers of Hitler and his Third Reich. Bitterly divided from his family on account of his marriage, there are suggestions that Edward hoped to assume the throne of a defeated Britain with Hitler’s blessing.
But nothing came of the peace feelers. At 9 pm on 17 June Churchill spoke on the radio for two minutes before the evening’s news bulletin.
In a hastily prepared response to the French collapse he told the world: “The news from France is very bad, and I grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune.” He went on: “We shall defend our island, and, with the British Empire around us, we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted from the brows of men. We are sure that in the end all will be well.”
At 3.45 the following afternoon, while the Germans were still considering how to react to the hints, questions and off-the-record conversations, channelled through their ambassadors in neutral capitals, Churchill stood up in the House of Commons and delivered the speech that he had been writing when he was absent from the cabinet:
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 fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and 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 a perverted science.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years men will still say “This was their finest hour.”
It was one of Churchill’s finest hours too. At that time there were no recording or broadcast facilities in the House of Commons, and so the prime minister was prevailed upon to deliver the speech again over the radio at 9 pm before that evening’s BBC news bulletin. The radio performance did not communicate the Churchill fire that a live audience had produced in the afternoon. Some of his colleagues thought his voice sounded unusual over the air and put it down to emotion, or the imperfections of broadcasting. Less charitably, the publisher Cecil King wondered if he was drunk. Harold Nicolson at the Ministry of Information remarked that a speech that sounded magnificent in the House of Commons ‘sounded ghastly on the wireless’.
John Martin, private secretary to the prime minister, said that Churchill’s ‘halting delivery at the start seems to have struck people and we had a letter from someone saying that evidently something had gone wrong with his heart and he ought to work in the recumbent position. The fact was, I gather, that he spoke with a cigar in his mouth.”
In recent years an elaborate myth has grown up around speculation that maybe the 18 June speech was not broadcast by Churchill at all. The rumours spread when the BBC repertory actor Norman Shelley, who played Winnie the Pooh and Toad of Toad Hall in the BBC Children’s Hour, revealed that, with the prime minister’s permission, he had recorded Churchill’s speeches for American audiences. But there is no real evidence to support the view that Shelley had imitated Churchill’s voice on the BBC in June 1940.