May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis

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The May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis was a confrontation between Winston Churchill, newly appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Edward Wood, the Viscount Halifax and 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 U.K. 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 outmaneuvered 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",[1] convincing all present that Britain must fight on against Hitler whatever the cost.


Chamberlain falls[edit]

On 8 May, in a vote following the Norway Debate on the deteriorating UK military situation, Neville Chamberlain's government survived what amounted to a motion of no confidence.[2] The government, although having a majority in the House of 213,[3] won the vote with a majority of only 81 votes: 33 Conservatives and 5 of their governing allies voted with the opposition, and many other Conservatives abstained.[4] Churchill, who had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, 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.[5]

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.[6]

Churchill becomes Prime Minister[edit]

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 Labour's National Executive Committee, then in Bournemouth preparing for the annual conference which was to start on the Monday. They were asked to telephone with the result of the consultation by the following afternoon.[7]

Churchill's own account of these events, written six years later, is not accurate. 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.[8]

The Labour leaders telephoned at 5 pm 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.[7]

Halifax's talks with the Italians[edit]

Although the crisis was to involve the Italians, upon becoming Prime Minister Churchill had been polite about Italy, then still neutral: On 16 May he stated that Britain was "not an enemy of Italy or of Mussolini".[9]

An intelligence memo, undated but probably written 25 May, warned the War Cabinet about the danger of submarine and air attack.[9] Halifax formulated an appeal to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which stated that Britain "could not accept" terms that jeopardized the independence of the United Kingdom. He hoped that the United States would enter the war to prevent the conquest of Britain or France.[9]

Halifax met Italy's ambassador to the UK Giuseppe Bastianini on 25 May, late in the 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[vague] stated that "matters which cause anxiety to Italy must certainly be discussed as part of a general European settlement".[citation needed] 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, Percy Loraine.[9]

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".[citation needed] 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.[10]

War Cabinet meetings, 26 May[edit]

The following morning (Sunday 26 May), Halifax gave his report of this conversation to the War Cabinet, first telling them 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".[10]

The War Cabinet resumed its deliberations later that day at 2 pm. Churchill began by describing his meeting with French Prime Minister Paul 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".[11]

Churchill replied[citation needed] "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".[11]

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".[12]

War Cabinet meetings, 27 May[edit]

The plan to seek a compromise peace was euphemistically referred to as the "Reynaud Plan".[13]

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".[13]

Sinclair, Attlee and Greenwood were against the plan.[13]

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.[citation needed]

At Cabinet on 27 May, Churchill was furious at US hints, delivered via the British Ambassador Philip Kerr, that Britain should hand over bases in return for US support (although later in the year, Churchill would do precisely that).[14] Churchill's telegram to the Dominions on 27 May left open the possibility of peace talks later in the year.[15]

Outer Cabinet, 28 May[edit]

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 emphasizing 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 through 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.[16]

Mussolini had rejected an approach by Roosevelt along the lines suggested by Britain and France.[17] On 28 May, it was learned that Italy planned to enter the war on Germany's side, which happened on 10 June.[15]

Halifax later helped to persuade Churchill not to send any more aircraft to France.[18] Halifax poured cold water on the Dominions' desire to be receptive to German peace feelers.[19] 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".[20]

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.[15]


  1. ^ "Churchill decides to fight on". BBC History. BBC. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  2. ^ Eccleshall, Robert; Walker, Graham, eds. (1998). Biographical dictionary of British prime ministers (1st ed.). Routledge. p. 294. ISBN 9780415108300.
  3. ^ Mosley, Leonard (1971). Backs to the wall; the heroic story of the people of London during World War II. Random House. p. 44. ISBN 9780394460802.
  4. ^ Self, Robert C. (2006). Neville Chamberlain : a biography. Routledge. p. 426. ISBN 9780754656159.
  5. ^ "Conduct of the War". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 360. House of Commons. 8 May 1940. col. 1251–366.
  6. ^ Jenkins 2002, p. 582.
  7. ^ a b Jenkins 2002, p. 586.
  8. ^ Jenkins 2002, p. 583.
  9. ^ a b c d Roberts 1991, pp. 212–3.
  10. ^ a b Roberts 1991, p. 216.
  11. ^ a b Roberts 1991, p. 217.
  12. ^ Roberts 1991, p. 218.
  13. ^ a b c Roberts 1991, p. 220.
  14. ^ Roberts 1991, p. 219.
  15. ^ a b c Roberts 1991, p. 227.
  16. ^ Roberts 1991, p. 225.
  17. ^ Roberts 1991, p. 223.
  18. ^ Roberts 1991, p. 230.
  19. ^ Roberts 1991, p. 231.
  20. ^ Roberts 1991, pp. 248–50.