May 1940 War Cabinet crisis
The May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis was a confrontation between Winston Churchill, newly appointed as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Viscount Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, which took place between 25 and 28 May. Halifax believed that in view of the imminent Fall of France and the encirclement of British forces at Dunkirk the United Kingdom should explore the possibility of a negotiated peace settlement with Adolf Hitler, with the still-neutral Italian leader Benito Mussolini brokering the agreement. After apparently considering ending the war on 26 May, Churchill outmanoeuvred Halifax by calling a meeting of his 25-member Outer Cabinet two days later, to whom he delivered a passionate speech, saying "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", convincing all present that Britain must fight on against Hitler whatever the cost.
On 8 May, Neville Chamberlain's government survived a motion of no confidence following the Norway Debate on the deteriorating military situation in Norway. The government, with a majority in the house of 213, won the vote with a majority of 81: 33 Conservatives and 8 of their allies voted with the opposition parties and 60 abstained. Churchill, who had only grudgingly been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, had nevertheless mounted a strong defence of Chamberlain and his Government in the debate, ending his closing speech with these words:
At no time in the last war were we in greater peril than we are now, and I urge the House strongly to deal with these matters not in a precipitate vote, ill debated and on a widely discursive field, but in grave time and due time in accordance with the dignity of Parliament.
With the Prime Minister being strongly criticised on both sides of the House and there being a strong desire for national unity, the vote was catastrophic. Afterwards, Chamberlain told Churchill that he was dejected and did not think he could go on and that he would try to form a coalition government with the Labour and Liberal Parties. Churchill was opposed to that and later wrote:
Aroused by the antagonisms of the debate, and being sure of my own past record on the issues at stake, I was strongly disposed to fight on. 'This has been a damaging debate [he told Chamberlain], but you have a good majority. Do not take the matter grievously to heart. We have a better case about Norway than it has been possible to convey to the House. Strengthen your Government from every quarter, and let us go until our majority deserts us'. To this effect I spoke. But Chamberlain was neither convinced nor comforted, and I left him about midnight with the feeling that he would persist in his resolve to sacrifice himself, if there was no other way, rather than attempt to carry the war further with a one-party Government.
Churchill becomes Prime Minister
At a meeting the next day, also attended by Halifax and Churchill, Chamberlain asked the leader and the deputy leader of the Opposition Labour Party, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, if they would serve in a coalition. They replied that it might be possible but only with a different Prime Minister and that before they could give an official answer, they would need the approval of the annual Labour Party conference, then in session in Bournemouth. They were asked to telephone with the result of the consultation by the following afternoon.
Churchill's own account of these events, written six years later, is misleading. It describes the events of 9 May as taking place the following day, and the description of Chamberlain attempting to persuade him to agree tacitly to Halifax's appointment as Prime Minister does not quite tally with Halifax's having expressed his reluctance to do so to Chamberlain at a meeting between the two men on the morning of 9 May.
In his memoirs, Halifax later wrote:
I had no doubt at all in my own mind that for me to succeed him would create a quite impossible situation. Apart altogether from Churchill's qualities as compared with my own at this particular juncture, what would in fact be my position? Churchill would be running Defence, and in this connexion one could not but remember the relationship between Asquith and Lloyd George had broken down in the first war.... I should speedily become a more or less honorary Prime Minister, living in a kind of twilight just outside the things that really mattered.
The Labour leaders telephoned at 5 p.m. on 10 May to report that the party would take part in a coalition government but not under Chamberlain's leadership. Accordingly, Chamberlain went to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation, recommending King George VI to ask Churchill to form a government. One of Churchill's first actions was to form a new, smaller, War Cabinet by replacing six of the Conservative politicians who had been in the previous body with Greenwood and Attlee and retaining only Halifax and Chamberlain.
Churchill and the Conservative Party
Churchill's political position was weak; although he was popular with the Labour and Liberal Parties for his stance against appeasement in the 1930s, he was unpopular with most members of the Conservative Party. He was regarded with suspicion because of his history of poor judgement, including, in particular, the failed attack on the Dardanelles in 1915 (he had been a highly partisan Liberal at the time and did not rejoin the Conservatives until the mid-1920s). In Opposition in the 1930s, Churchill had criticised the Conservatives for their support of Government of India Act 1935 for provincial self-government for India and over the appeasement of Germany. It was not until September 1939, when Britain and France were forced to declare war, that Churchill was again made First Lord of the Admiralty.
On 10 May 1940, the day Churchill became Prime Minister, Germany launched an invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France, beginning the war in the west in earnest. German forces crossed the Meuse at Sedan on 13 May. On 15 May, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud declared (on the telephone to Churchill), "We are defeated". On 16 May, Churchill flew to Paris, and in response to his question to Maurice Gamelin, "Où est la masse de manoeuvre?", received the reply "Aucun" ("Where is the strategic reserve?" "None"). By 20 May, the first German units reached Abbeville on the Channel coast. By 22 and 23 May, after an abortive counterattack at Arras, German forces were pushing towards the English Channel, isolating the British Expeditionary Force.
However, suffering as they were from fatigue and the loss of up to half of their vehicles, the Germans were unable to immediately continue the offensive. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring convinced Hitler that his air force, which up to this point in the campaign had performed exceptionally, could destroy what remained of the Allied forces on the beaches of Dunkirk. On 24 May, Hitler approved Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt's order for the armies to halt so armoured vehicles could be repaired.
The British and French Navies, assisted by the Royal Air Force, began the Dunkirk evacuation of the surrounded Allied forces (27 May-4 June). It was clear that the Germans had won a smashing victory, but it was not yet clear that France would collapse altogether. (In the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and 1871, France had fought on for another four months after the Battle of Sedan, which caused the defeat of its armies on the frontier, and in 1914, it had snatched survival from the jaws of defeat at the First Battle of the Marne.)
Halifax's talks with the Italians
An intelligence memo, undated but probably 25 May, warned the War Cabinet about the danger of submarine and air attack. Halifax formulated an appeal to Franklin Roosevelt, which stated that Britain "could not accept" terms that jeopardised the independence of the UK. He hoped that the US would enter the war to prevent the conquest of Britain or France.
On 25 May, Halifax reported to the War Cabinet that Giuseppe Bastianini, the Italian ambassador in London, had requested a meeting with him to discuss Italy's neutrality. Churchill did not think anything would come of this meeting but agreed to the meeting provided it was not made public. He believed any publicity in this matter "would amount to a confession of weakness".
Halifax met Bastianini later that afternoon. He tried to persuade Italy to stay out of the war although the discussion soon moved from the question of Italian neutrality to that of Italian mediation between the Allies and Germany. He stated that "matters which cause anxiety to Italy must certainly be discussed as part of a general European settlement". That would have included Suez, Gibraltar, Malta, Tunis, Dijbouti, Somaliland, Corfu or perhaps even Kenya or Uganda. Halifax sent an account of this to the British Ambassador in Rome, Sir Percy Loraine.
Bastianini said that Mussolini's goal was to negotiate a settlement "that would not merely be an armistice, but would protect European peace for the century". Halifax made his willingness clear, but did not commit himself to any course of action: "The purpose of His Majesty's government was the same, and they would never be unwilling to consider any proposal made with authority that gave promise of establishment of a secure and peaceful Europe". Gladwyn Jebb, Private Secretary to Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, later learned that the interview had gone wrong, as Halifax had made no specific promises.
War Cabinet meetings, 26 May
The following morning (Sunday 26 May), Halifax gave his report of this conversation to the War Cabinet, first telling the War Cabinet that in his opinion they "had to face the fact that it was not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany but of safeguarding the independence of our own Empire and if possible that of France". He said "that peace and security in Europe were equally our main object, and we should naturally be prepared to consider any proposals which might lead to this, provided our liberty and independence were assured". Churchill's response was that any peace so achieved would lead to German domination of Europe, something that he could never accept. He went on to say that he was "opposed to any negotiations which might lead to a derogation of our rights and power". Halifax chose to not respond to Churchill at that point. Churchill then adjourned the meeting so that he could attend a meeting with Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister.
The War Cabinet resumed its deliberations later that day at 2 pm. Churchill began by describing his meeting with Reynaud, who had stated that the French military situation was hopeless but that he had no intentions of signing a separate peace treaty with Germany; he, however, might be forced to resign and believed that there were others in the French government who would sign such a treaty. Churchill claimed to have told Reynaud that Britain was not prepared "to give in on any account. We would rather go down fighting than be enslaved to Germany". However, Churchill told Reynaud that "we would (emphasis added) try to find some formula on which Mussolini would be approached".
Churchill then asked Halifax to go immediately and see Reynaud at Admiralty House, adding that he and the rest of the War Cabinet would follow shortly. However, Halifax did not comply with Churchill's request but again brought up the subject of Italy: "that the last thing Mussolini wanted was to see Herr Hitler dominating Europe". Halifax then suggested that in exchange for territory, Mussolini might be willing to mediate an end to hostilities between the Allies and Germany.
Churchill said that he "doubted whether anything would come of an approach to Italy, but that the matter was one which the War Cabinet would have to consider". Halifax attempted to obtain a firm comment from Churchill, asking if he "was satisfied that matters vital to independence of this country were unaffected, would he be prepared to discuss such terms?"
Churchill replied, "I would be grateful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territory". He said that "if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies he would jump at it. But the only safe way was to convince Hitler that he couldn't beat us". It is unclear whether Churchill was wavering on Britain making peace or whether he was simply playing for time.
Halifax departed the War Cabinet for his meeting with Reynaud. Not long afterwards, Churchill adjourned the meeting and joined Halifax at Admiralty House along with the rest of the War Cabinet. Later that day, after Reynaud's departure, Churchill asked the War Cabinet to remain at Admiralty House for an "informal meeting". Unfortunately, the surprise nature of the meeting makes the records of it incomplete. The War Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges did not arrive until 15 min into the meeting. On his arrival, the War Cabinet was in the midst of discussing the prior meeting with Reynaud and likelihood of France making a peace deal with Germany. Churchill said:
We were in a different position from France. In the first place, we still had powers of resistance and attack, which they had not. In the second place, they would likely to be offered decent terms by Germany, which we should not. If France could not defend herself, it was better that she should get out of the war rather than that she should drag us into a settlement which involved intolerable terms. There was no limit to the terms which Germany would impose upon us if she had her way. From one point of view, I would rather France was out of the war before she was broken up, and retained the strong position of a strong neutral whose factories could not be used against us.
Churchill then went on to say that he hoped France would hang on but that it was essential not to be forced into a weak position "in which we went to Signor Mussolini and invited him to go to Herr Hitler and asked him to treat us nicely. We must not get tangled in a position of that kind before we had been involved in any serious fighting".
Halifax replied that he did not disagree with Churchill's views but that he "attached perhaps more importance than the Prime Minister to the desirability of allowing France to try out the possibilities of European equilibrium". Halifax went on to say that Churchill was wrong about Hitler's intent and that it would not be in his interests "to insist on outrageous terms. After all, he [Hitler] knew his own weakness. On this lay-out it might be possible to save France from the wreck".
Churchill again stated his disagreement. Halifax continued:
We might say to Signor Mussolini that if there was any suggestion of terms which affected our independence, we should not look at them for a moment. If, however, Signor Mussolini was alarmed as we felt he must be in regard to Herr Hitler's power, and was prepared to look at matters from the point of view of the balance of power, then we might consider Italian claims. At any rate, he could see no harm in trying this line of approach.
Chamberlain was noncommittal: "Mussolini could only take an independent line if Herr Hitler were disposed to conform to the line which Signor Mussolini indicated. The problem was a very difficult one, and it was right to talk it out from every point of view." Churchill again attempted to buy time by telling the War Cabinet that a decision should be delayed until after the result of the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk was known.
Halifax did not agree. He again read out his notes on his meeting with Bastianini and stated that this was the time to negotiate in order to obtain the best terms. Churchill again implied that he was prepared to give Germany back its colonies taken after the First World War and "to make certain concessions in the Mediterranean" to "get out of our present difficulties." He then added that he believed "no such option was open to us. For example, the terms offered would certainly prevent us from completing our re-armament".
Halifax said that such terms "would be refused" but added that he did not think such terms would be likely. Churchill's response was that "Herr Hitler thought that he had the whip hand. The only thing to do was to show him that he could not conquer this country. If, on M. Reynaud's showing, France could not continue, we must part company". At the behest of the War Cabinet, Halifax drew up a memorandum on "Suggested Approaches to Italy".
War Cabinet meetings, 27 May
On the following day the most critical of the nine War Cabinet meetings between 26 and 28 May 1940 took place. A first War Cabinet meeting started at 11.30am and concerned mainly military matters. Halifax spoke very little. Disagreement between Churchill and Halifax came to a head during the second meeting, at 4.30pm. Churchill broke protocol and invited the Liberal Party leader and newly appointed Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, a strong opponent of appeasement and long-standing supporter of Churchill.
The plan to seek a compromise peace was euphemistically referred to as the "Reynaud Plan". The War Cabinet opened with Halifax presenting his memorandum on the "Suggested Approaches to Italy":
- If Signor Mussolini will co-operate with us in securing a settlement… we will undertake at once to discuss, with the desire to find solutions, [to] the matters in which Signor Mussolini is primarily interested. We understand that he desires the solution of certain Mediterranean questions: and if he will state in secrecy what these are, France and Great Britain will at once do their best to meet these wishes.
Churchill made a long statement opposing Halifax's memorandum and said that he was:
Increasingly opposed with the futility of the suggested approach to Signor Mussolini, which the latter would certainly regard with contempt. Such an approach would do M. Reynaud far less good than if he made a firm stand. Further, the approach would ruin the integrity of our fighting position in this country. Even if we did not include geographical precision and mentioned no names, everybody would know what we had in mind... let us not be dragged down with France. If the French were not prepared to go on with the struggle, let them give up.... If this country was beaten, France [would become] a vassal State; but if we won, we might save them. The best help we could give to M. Reynaud was to let him feel that, whatever happened to France, we were going to fight it out to the end.... At the moment our prestige in Europe was very low. The only way we could get it back was by showing the world that Germany had not beaten us. If, after two or three months, we could show that we still unbeaten, our prestige would return. Even if we were beaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle. Let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope with France. The whole of this maneuver was intended to get us so deeply involved in negotiations that we should be unable to turn back. We had gone a long way already in our approach to Italy, but let us not allow M. Reynaud to get us involved in a confused situation. The approach proposed was not only futile, but involved us in a deadly danger.
Chamberlain now spoke out in defence of Halifax's peace proposal: "While [it is] agreed that the proposed approach would not serve any useful purpose, [I think] that we ought to go a little further with it, in order to keep the French in a good temper... our reply should not be a complete refusal." He was against it "at the present time" but thought the situation might change "even in a week". Churchill replied that "if worst came to the worst, it would not be a bad thing for this country to go down fighting for the other countries which had been overcome by Nazi tyranny".
Sinclair, Attlee and Greenwood were against the plan.
Halifax now was incensed, going on the offensive and saying to the War Cabinet that he saw:
No particular difficulty in taking the line suggested by the Lord President [Chamberlain]. Nevertheless [I am] conscious of certain rather profound differences of points of view which [I] would like to make clear.... [I] could not recognize any resemblance between the action which [I] proposed, and the suggestion that we were suing for terms and following a line which would lead us to disaster. In the discussion the previous day [I] had asked the Prime Minister whether, if he was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, he would be prepared to discuss terms. The Prime Minister had said that he would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retain the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some cession of territory. On the present occasion, however, the Prime Minister seemed to suggest that under no conditions would we contemplate any course except fighting to the finish. The issue was probably academic, since we were unlikely to receive any offer which would not come up against the fundamental conditions which were essential to us. If, however, it was possible to obtain a settlement which did not impair those conditions, [I doubt I] would be able to accept the view now put forward by the Prime Minister.
Halifax's implication was that if Churchill would not accept an attempt at peace, he would be forced to resign. If Halifax had resigned, most likely Chamberlain would follow, and then, Churchill would have faced a parliamentary revolt from the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, which could have led to his resignation as Prime Minister and the re-appointment of Chamberlain or possibly to the appointment of Halifax.
Faced with the threat of Halifax's resignation Churchill retreated from his hawkish position:
The issue which the War Cabinet was called upon to settle was difficult enough without getting involved in the discussion of an issue which was quite unreal and was unlikely to arise. If Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe, that was one thing. But it was quite unlikely that he would make any such offer.
Halifax then decided to press Churchill on this statement. He asked:
Suppose the French Army collapsed and Herr Hitler made an offer of peace terms. Suppose the French Government said 'We are unable to deal with an offer made to France alone and you must deal with the Allies together'. Suppose Herr Hitler, being anxious to end the war through knowledge of his own internal weaknesses, offered terms to France and England, would the Prime Minister be prepared to discuss them?
Churchill said that he "would not join France in asking for terms; but if [I] were told what the terms offered were, [I] would be prepared to consider them". The meeting soon adjourned and Halifax asked to speak with Churchill privately. Churchill took Halifax to his private garden at 10 Downing Street, where Halifax made his threat of resignation explicit.
At Cabinet on 27 May, Churchill was furious at US hints, delivered via the British Ambassador Lord Lothian, that Britain should hand over bases in return for US support (although later in the year, Churchill would do precisely that). Churchill’s telegram to the Dominions on 27 May left open the possibility of peace talks later in the year.
Two further War Cabinet meetings followed at 10 pm on 27 May and 11.30 am on 28 May before the conflict between Churchill and Halifax erupted again. At the War Cabinet meeting at 4.00 pm on 28 May, Halifax announced that the Foreign Office had received word from the Italian Embassy in London that Italy was prepared to mediate a resolution between the Allies and Germany. Halifax then said that he had discussed the possibility of such a proposal with Reynaud two days before. He believed that Britain and France should inform Italy that they "were prepared to fight to the death for our independence, but that, provided this could be secured, there were certain concessions that we were prepared to make to Italy." Churchill refused to do so and then replied that "the position would be entirely different when Germany had made an unsuccessful attempt to invade this country". Halifax's response was that "we must not ignore the fact that we might get better terms before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were bombed, than we might get in three months time".
Halifax was concerned at the German 4:1 superiority in the air and believed that Germany was dangerously close to destroying British aircraft production in Birmingham and Coventry. Churchill thought the ratio was more like 5:3, with the ratio of kills 3:1 in Britain’s favour. Halifax did not want to give up British independence. He had mentioned that by fighting on, Churchill was risking destruction of Britain's aircraft factories; he was prepared to take that risk only if Britain’s independence was actually at risk, and he was not willing to accept "outrageous" terms. Roberts stresses that Churchill neither entirely ruled out a compromise peace nor wanted to be the one to solicit it. When pressed by Halifax's threat of resignation, he had been open to conceding the return of German colonies or overlordship of Central Europe.
Churchill continued to resist Halifax:
Signor Mussolini, if he came in as a mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to imagine that Herr Hitler would be so foolish as to let us continue our re-armament. In effect, his terms would put us completely at his mercy. We should get no worse terms if we went on fighting, even if we were beaten, than were open to us now. If, however, we continued the war and Germany attacked us, no doubt we should suffer some damage, but they also would suffer severe losses. Their oil supplies might be reduced. A time might come when we felt that we had to put an end to the struggle, but the terms would then be no more mortal than those offered to us now.
Halifax responded that he still could not see what Churchill found so wrong with "trying out the possibilities of mediation". Churchill replied that "nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished".
Outer Cabinet, 28 May
Churchill then adjourned the War Cabinet until 7 pm so he could attend a previously scheduled meeting with his 25-member Outer Cabinet. "I had not seen many of my colleagues outside the War Cabinet, except individually, since the formation of the Government," said Churchill in his memoirs. The only account of what Churchill said at this critical meeting comes from Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour Party and the newly appointed Minister of Economic Warfare.
Churchill began his remarks by emphasising the seriousness of the military situation, and went on to say
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. The Germans would demand our – that would be called disarmament – our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler's puppet would be set up – under Mosley or some such person. And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side we have immense reserves and advantages. And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. 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.
Churchill would later write of the response he received at the conclusion of his remarks:
There occurred a demonstration which considered the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.
Churchill received a standing applause from the Outer Cabinet and thus ensured that the United Kingdom would fight on. When the War Cabinet reconvened at 7 pm, Churchill's position was secure. He told the War Cabinet of his earlier meeting, telling them that the Outer Cabinet "had expressed the greatest satisfaction when [I] had told them that there was no chance of our giving up the struggle. [I] did not remember having ever before heard a gathering of persons occupying high places in political life express themselves so emphatically."
Churchill sent a telegram to Reynaud stating that there would be no approach to Mussolini at that time but still leaving the possibility open.
Mussolini had rejected an approach by Roosevelt along the lines suggested by Britain and France. On 28 May, it was learned that Italy planned to enter the war on Germany's side, which happened on 10 June.
Halifax later helped to persuade Churchill not to send any more aircraft to France. Halifax poured cold water on the Dominions’ desire to be receptive to German peace feelers. On 19 July 1940 Hitler in a speech put out peace feelers to Britain. However, on 22 July Halifax delivered a speech rejecting the offer. Halifax had little further interest in tentative German peace feelers throughout the year. In 1942 Hitler told Bormann of how Halifax had "declined the hand of peace".
However, Halifax later damaged his own reputation by lying to the Official Historian, claiming the talks had just been intended to keep Italy out of the war.
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