Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly became Prime Minister
Harvill Secker, $29.99
History looks inevitable afterwards, but at the time it's often messy and uncertain. The year 1940 with the fall of France, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain is a dramatic case in point. Now the image of that time is Churchill with cigar and V for Victory sign. (Just think about the Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour). But there was nothing inevitable about it: just as Britain's decision to fight and not surrender after the fall of France was never foregone.
John Lukacs's Five Days in London, a masterfully condensed study, concentrates on the time immediately after Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain. It's a truism to say that World War II was won by Russian dead and American money. But, says Lukacs, "in May 1940 Churchill was the one who did not lose it".
This was "the hinge of fate" (Churchill's phrase), when Europe's destiny was decided. Nicholas Shakespeare's much longer study looks at the period to May 10, 1940, when Churchill became Prime Minister. Its title refers to the six minutes for the House of Commons to deliver what amounted to a vote of no-confidence in Chamberlain on May 7. In this sense Shakespeare's study works as a prequel to Lukacs' book.
Shakespeare, whose great uncle was a Conservative MP at the time, delves deeply into the period, even unearthing new material. The first half of the book focuses largely on Britain's spectacularly botched Norway campaign in early 1940. Although Churchill was highly significant in the campaign, and should have worn the blame for the defeat, it was Chamberlain who copped the flak.
That six-minute vote was on the conduct of the Norway campaign and, therefore, the competence of the prime minister. While Chamberlain won, more than 40 Conservative MPs crossed the floor and from that moment everything was up in the air.
Although there is too much detail about Norway, and too many cameos of those involved, sometimes cluttering rather than clarifying, Shakespeare's book really takes off when examining the three days to May 10. It's dramatically captured: the speeches in a crowded parliament condemning Chamberlain, the hand-wringing by rebel Conservative MPs, the backroom manoeuvres and the sheer tension of the times, for it must be remembered that bombing and invasion were seen as imminent. Indeed, on the day Churchill was appointed, Germany launched its blitzkrieg on the low countries that, in a matter of weeks, led to the collapse of France.
But, in the weeks leading to the vote, Churchill was far from everybody's favourite. He had form (Gallipoli and then Norway), was seen as rash, labelled a half-breed by the aristocracy (his mother was American), and a man with no judgment: the wrong man to lead the country through perilous times.
Lord Halifax was the favourite, but didn't want the job. He was not a war leader, may have sued for peace and in late May (with Churchill's knowledge) was pursuing peace options through the Italian ambassador. It's intriguing to speculate how far he would have gone; the first thing the Germans would have demanded was the surrender of the Royal Navy.
Shakespeare's portraits of the main players are vivid. Chamberlain, so often parodied for the "scrap of paper" he brought back from the Munich conference in 1938, emerges with dignity. His massive re-armament after 1935 – 40 per cent of GDP – paid off in September 1940. His final days in office are sympathetically depicted, the end poignant. Halifax emerges as an enigma (more shifty and flawed in Lukacs): the gentleman politician who baulked at the thought of the top job. Whereas Churchill came alive in wartime, believed he was born for the moment and, as Shakespeare says, "relished being on the bridge of a fighting frigate in the middle of a gale".
The dust from the Blitz, like the dust of history, has settled, and Churchill, who got just about everything wrong, apart from one vitally significant thing - the decision to fight - is now the face of those times. But it might perhaps have taken only a smaller number of rebel Tories voting against the Prime Minister or a vacillating Clement Attlee accepting a Chamberlain premiership in a National government for a different history to have emerged.
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