Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain's Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 [Review I]
Although World War II began in Europe in September, 1939, it was followed by the approximately six month period of what was called the Phony War: Universal national mobilization, decisions on strategies to pursue and diplomatic maneuverings were the order of the day with little to no fighting. It did not really ramp up until the following spring when Germany launched its attack on the West against Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries (Netherlands and Belgium), and France.
Author John Kelly not only covers the pre-war attempts by Britain and France to attain “peace in our time” but also the evolution of how Winston Churchill eventually came to find himself in the driver’s seat as Prime Minister and his own minister of defense. The twists and turns of infighting and partisan politics in Great Britain were many before Kelly finally arrives at the crux of the book.
The spring of 1940 was a time of considerable drama, suspense, doubt, and uncertainty for the Allies: The suspense and uncertainty of the date of the German attack and its focal point, drama in the relative military unpreparedness of the Allies and resources necessary to repel the Germans and doubt as to whether the Germans could even be withstood or “bought off” with territorial concessions through the mediation of Italy’s Benito Mussolini, neutral at the time.
Finding himself in the political wilderness for some years, due at least partly to his advocacy and the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign in World War I, Churchill managed to keep a hand in British politics in the postwar years and was even the First Lord of the Admiralty by the late 1930s. Failure to satisfy Hitler’s ambitions and obtain “peace in our time” following the Munich Conference over the Sudetenland in 1938 was the first step on the long road to discredit for Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor.
Although he managed to hang on, another Allied failure, this time to discharge military defense and assistance obligations to Poland following its invasion by Germany, brought matters to a head. Inadequate home island defense preparations, the extent of Britain’s commitment to France in the form of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and, ultimately, the German assault in the West led to a crisis in confidence in Chamberlain’s ability to lead Britain.
There were other candidates available to assume the Prime Minister’s position yet each declined, was insufficiently experienced or simply had too much baggage, as did Churchill, to be considered. Even after assuming the position, there was a measure of uncertainty as to his capability and fortitude even to develop an effective war policy and strategy as defensive preparations continued apace.
Kelly quite capably describes the behind-the-scenes action of the decisions made by Churchill to motivate and lead the British people in spite of his own doubts sometimes. Indeed, as it turned out, he was prescient in declaring that Britain could only survive by winning the upcoming Battle of Britain between the contending air forces. Meanwhile, he also had to balance his commitment to the French even as he attempted, initially unsuccessfully, to persuade FDR and the United States to send aid and become what was eventually the Arsenal of Democracy.
Not strictly a book of military history, the German campaign against the French and the BEF, including the miraculous evacuation at Dunkirk, is described with respect to the influence it had on Churchill’s thinking as well as the French collapse and defeat. Complicating the latter was the “no separate peace” clause in effect between the two nations and the decision on the part of Great Britain to go it alone.
In the end, it was Churchill’s personal fortitude, indomitable spirit and, yes, his well-known eloquence which most influenced the British public. His decision to see the war through and not come to terms with Germany which would jeopardize Great Britain’s independence and sovereignty could be seen perhaps as foolhardy yet also the courage of one’s convictions.
Inasmuch as this is well-written narrative political history, it does not necessarily meet the complete test for such. Surprisingly, there is no bibliography and the notes for each chapter pertain to the page of the text where such quotation or information is found, notwithstanding the author’s extensive research. There are no maps which could have provided some modicum of geographical context. However, there is a photographic section which contains some familiar period photographs as well as some not so well-known.
Considering the monumental importance to world history and the 20th century of the decision, and its ultimate vindication, to fight the Germans when Britain stood alone, this story is a profile in courage of Winston Churchill.