Northern Wyoming Daily News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By John Davis
Columnist 

The Battle of Britain

 

May 30, 2017



I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the last few weeks, and most of the books I’ve read are about the World War II era, especially the Battle of Britain. There are times in history when events are so chaotic and momentous that fate teeters precariously, so that the future could abruptly change from a bad situation to a massive tragedy for vast numbers of people. One of those periods was May 1940.

May 1940 was when the European war between Germany and the western European countries – France, Britain, and Belgium, primarily – went from a “phony war” to a crushing conquest by Adolph Hitler’s Germany. Germany overran France and Belgium in about two weeks and seemed poised to capture the entire British Expeditionary Force, most of whose members had fled to Dunkirk.

The British government recognized the depth of the disaster Britain was facing, and the conversation, at the highest levels of the government, turned to the best way to salvage something from this unprecedented calamity. I mentioned all this in a February 2016 column, and there concluded that the significance of this debate was overstated, that Winston Churchill was never going to capitulate to Nazi Germany. But my recent reading about the days preceding the Battle of Britain has made me reconsider this position.

Last week I read the book, “Finest Hour, The Battle of Britain,” by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig. The book is well written, doing an excellent job of telling the amazing story of May 1940. I assumed that Churchill, as the prime minister, was in control. But the authors showed that Churchill, although the head of the government, was leading a War Cabinet, meaning a coalition government. Members of that coalition could pull out of the cabinet, and insist that Britain go a different direction than Churchill wanted. Lord Halifax was the leader of those who wished to make a peace deal, as Hitler was proposing. It was not in Hitler’s interest, said Halifax, to insist on outrageous peace terms. Winston Churchill countered that it was impossible to deal with Hitler, that the Fuehrer would impose crushing terms on Great Britain. There was a lot of talk about what might be done with the British navy, then the largest navy in the world, including setting over that navy to Canada, the United States, or, perhaps, Germany.

What finally resolved this argument was Dunkirk. Halifax and his supporters believed that 300,000 men and all their arms would soon be gobbled up by Germany, leaving Britain sorely weakened in the face of the crushing power of the German armed forces. But instead of being captured by the German army, the great majority of the British soldiers, and many French soldiers, were pulled from the Dunkirk beach by an armada of British ships, boats, yachts, tugs, barges, sailboats, and even rowboats, and taken across the English Channel to safety in England.

After Dunkirk, Churchill had a much stronger argument that Britain should keep fighting. And, during the Battle of Britain, the RAF heroically turned away Hitler’s Luftwaffe. No story of the Battle of Britain would be complete without Winston Churchill’s rhetoric which so inspired his people, and people all over the world. Every time I read of that time and Churchill’s magnificent speeches to his people, it’s inspiring. I get goosebumps when I read Churchill’s talks about Britain’s “finest hour,” his declaration that, “We shall never surrender,” and, of course, his timeless tribute to the airmen of the RAF: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Looking back on that time 77 years ago, I think it has to be concluded that the grit and courage of the British people was of immeasurable assistance to the United States. If Lord Halifax had prevailed and Britain was essentially rendered neutral, the Second World War would have taken a turn very much in Germany’s favor. After 3 ½ years of hard fighting, and with the assistance of our allies, Britain and the Soviet Union, we won that war. But if Britain had been neutralized and Russia conquered, what country in the world could have resisted Germany and Japan? Only the U. S. A., and even if we did prevail, it surely would not have been done in 3 ½ years.

John Davis was raised in Worland, graduating from W. H. S. in 1961. John began practicing law here in 1973 and is retired.

 
 

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