On 18 June 1940, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that the Battle of France was over, adding: "I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. ... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned against us."
Churchill's famous words still have the power to mesmerize, particularly when coupled with Churchill's earlier statement "we will never surrender." Yet was it truly inevitable that Germany would attack Great Britain? Was the Battle of Britain unavoidable?
In fact, Britain did have an alternative in June 1940 -- and it was not surrender. Britain also had the option of a negotiated peace. Furthermore, this "solution" was the preferred option not only of the Germans but of a significant portion of the British political class, including members of Churchill's own cabinet. The most powerful voice favoring a peaceful settlement with Germany after the fall of France was none other than the British Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax.
Edward Wood, later 1st Earl of Halifax, was a leading member of the Conservative Party in Great Britain, with a distinguished career in government during interwar years. He had been Viceroy of India from 1925 to 1931, where he had successfully negotiated a de-escalation of the growing conflict with Gandhi. He was influential in shaping the 1935 Government of India Act, and in the same year became Secretary of State for War, where he demonstrated a marked reluctance to face the possibility of war by resisting pressure for re-armament.
Despite Hitler's rise to power, Halifax was among the many in Britain, who saw German re-militarization of the Rhineland as a normalization of affairs on the Continent rather than an outrage. In November 1937 he was invited hunting by Goering and also met with Adolf Hitler. Although not an official spokesman of the British government at this time (the Foreign Minister was Anthony Eden), his close ties to the British government gave his words considerable weight. Evidently without consulting his Foreign or Prime Minister, Halifax conveyed to Germany's leaders the impression that Britain did not inherently object to adjustments to the map of Europe as drawn up at the Treaty of Versailles. Halifax acknowledged that German interests in "self-determination" had not been respected at the Peace Conference and that Germany had legitimate interests in Austria, Czechoslovakia and even Poland. However, he warned that any adjustments must be made by peaceful means.
In February 1938, Halifax was appointed Foreign Secretary precisely because he had a more conciliatory attitude toward both Hitler and Mussolini, a position in line with that of the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Hitler's annexation of Austria in March 1938, however, induced him to favor rearmament as well. Pragmatically, Halifax hoped for peaceful de-escalation of tension, but recognized the need to be prepared for war.
As the Munich Crisis approached, it was clear to both Halifax and Chamberlain that the British public (and certainly the Labour opposition) were vehemently opposed to war and an alternative had to be found. "Appeasement" appeared to be the best solution, defusing the immediate tensions and buying time for the democracies to re-arm. Halifax also recommended widening the government to include Churchill and Eden, but Chamberlain resisted.
By the end of 1938, Halifax increasingly advocated resisting further aggression on the part of Hitler and Mussolini, including a guarantee to Poland. He had no hesitation standing by that guarantee in September 1939, beyond wanting the French to commit at the same time. Throughout the first eight months of the war Halifax rejected negotiations with Hitler, first refusing to talk as long as German troops were still on Polish soil, and later saying (via Swedish intermediaries) that there could be no negotiation with Germany as long as Hitler was in power.
On May 8, despite narrowly surviving a vote of no-confidence in Parliament, Neville Chamberlain recognized it was time for him to step down and allow a new coalition government including Labour to be formed. The unanswered question, however, was who was to succeed him. The Labour leadership agreed to join a government, as long as it as not led by Chamberlain; they did not object to serving under Halifax, despite his position as a peer of the realm. King George VI favored Halifax as Chamberlain's replacement, and the Conservative Party as whole much preferred Halifax to Churchill, who was considered volatile, unpredictable and not entirely trustworthy. Yet in a meeting between Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax on May 9, Halifax suggested that Churchill was the better man for the post of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, no decision had been taken by Chamberlain on who to recommend as his successor, when the Germans opened their offensive in the West, invading neutral Holland and Belgium.
That same evening, Chamberlain submitted his resignation to the king along with the recommendation that Winston Churchill be asked to form a government. Hours later, Churchill accepted the appointment, conscious both of how grave the situation was and of a sense of destiny. Yet while he proved capable of forming a coalition government, he remained an unpopular outsider, mistrusted by many in his own party and government and viewed with suspicious by the opposition as well. Meanwhile, Halifax remained Foreign Minister, and from this position he continued to command the loyalty and support of the majority. In consequence, his influence was far beyond what his official position would suggest.
This was not because Halifax harbored illusions about Hitler being "decent" or trustworthy. By this point in time, Halifax appears to have genuinely detested Hitler. However, from Halifax's point of view, Britain had lost the war on the Continent -- not her army, thankfully, but the war. There was, he said bluntly, nothing to be gained by continuing the struggle when Britain had literally no means of doing so. It was impossible to economically strangle an entire continent, no matter how powerful one's navy is. It was impossible to wage war against a continental land power with ships alone. While Churchill spoke of fighting on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields, streets, and hills, Halifax spoke of the duty of the British government to safeguard the nation's independence -- through negotiations.
When the Italian ambassador suggested that Mussolini might be able to broker a deal with Hitler, Halifax welcomed the offer and responded that Britain would be happy to listen to reasonable terms. After France surrendered on June 22, Halifax sent one of his closest associates to the Swedish Embassy with the message that Britain was still open to a reasonable settlement with Germany. He denied that Britain was committed to a fight to the death. Halifax's interest in a negotiated peace appears to have been motivated largely by the desire to prevent an air offensive against Britain that would cause loss of life and do inestimable damage to British industry. There is nothing dishonorable about the desire to save civilian lives and livelihoods.
Had Lord Halifax been tasked with leading the government at this point and had he advocated making peace with Hitler, he might have well enjoyed the passive, if not the active, support of the majority of the British public. Given the fact that Hitler himself had not anticipated and did not particularly want to continue the war against Britain (see: German Objectives in the Battle of Britain.), had Halifax rather than Churchill had headed the British government in June 1940 a negotiated settlement would almost certainly have been possible.
Nor should it be forgotten that it was not only Halifax and his supporters in the cabinet and Conservative party who wanted to negotiate with Hitler. British public opinion was also divided. There had been a far right wing party (British Union of Fascists) under Oswald Mosley, which was unabashedly anti-Semetic and pro-Nazi. Although banned at the start of the war, its members and sympathizers would certainly have supported a truce with Hitler. More importantly, as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Communist Party was at this point also "pro-Hitler." Significantly, the Communists had gained in popularity after the start of the war, evidently attracting many committed pacifists, who opposed to war on principle. In short, an unknown percent of the British population may have actively wanted an alliance with Hitler. The greater part of the public, however, was shocked, confused and frightened by the unexpected, indeed unfathomable, collapse of France in just six weeks. Still in a state of shock after this catastrophe, the majority of the British would probably have accepted a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany if their government had told them was in their best interests.
In other words, the Battle of Britain as not really inevitable -- except that Winston Churchill had with his own unshakable determination, confidence, and his gift with words succeeded in awakening a sleeping lion.
“Where Eagles Never Flew” depicts an England that is far from unanimous in its support for Churchill's policies and still sharply divided by class. It also shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnAoMC0d6Mo