Churchill examines a Tommy gun during an inspection of invasion defences near Hartlepool, 31 July 1940.

Churchill decides to fight on

May 1940

In late May, against the backdrop of the Dunkirk evacuation and the unstoppable German advance, Churchill disregarded calls for peace talks with Hitler. Britain would fight on, he ordered.

Photo: Churchill examines a Tommy gun during an inspection of invasion defences near Hartlepool, 31 July 1940. (IWM H2646)

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A peace deal is discussed

When Churchill became Prime Minister, he immediately created a coalition to ensure that the government would work together. The War Cabinet consisted of Churchill, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, Labour leader Clement Attlee and Labour deputy leader Arthur Greenwood. Halifax had been Churchill’s rival for the premiership when Chamberlain had stepped down earlier in the month.

On Sunday 26, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May 1940, the war cabinet met nine times to discuss whether Mussolini’s Italy should be asked to mediate a peace deal with Nazi Germany. Italy, although allied to Germany, had not yet joined the war against Britain and France.

Lord Halifax's position

Halifax argued for a truce, and had already discussed the issue with Italy’s ambassador to London. Many historians argue that Halifax was being realistic. After all, the British campaign in Norway had been disastrous; Allied military operations in France had collapsed; there had been forced evacuations from Dunkirk; and Belgium had surrendered to Germany on 28 May. While the British government deliberated, the French government was crumbling as France was seized, city by city, by the Nazis.

Halifax thought the British government would have to acknowledge Hitler’s triumph in Europe. This would be humiliating but it could then try to secure a measure of autonomy and even continue to have an imperial role. A truce could also mean that Britain would avoid the violent battles that had been fought over Poland and France.

Churchill's position

Churchill, however, believed it was more important for Britain to go down fighting, as "those [nations] which surrendered tamely were finished". Most importantly, this was what the public wanted, and Churchill argued that even exploring peace terms with Hitler would be an admission of defeat.

Furthermore, he said Germany couldn’t be trusted to respect any such treaty. Churchill was convinced that Hitler would seize the opportunity to take over the Royal Navy and its naval bases, and to set up a puppet state governed by someone like the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

However, if Britain continued to fight, he said, she could provide a beacon of resistance and, in time, a base from which Europe could be reclaimed.

Churchill persuades his cabinet

Churchill called a meeting with the ministers from the Outer Cabinet on 28 May to try to win their support. He succeeded, partly with an impassioned speech in which he said: "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".

The other ministers’ support for Churchill effectively ended Halifax’s campaign for peace talks. For Churchill, this was the first, and possibly most important, victory of his war-time premiership.

Almost two weeks later, Italy declared war on the Allies and on 22 June France signed their armistice with Germany. Britain was left to fight Nazi Germany alone but, led by Churchill, it would be a fight to the death.