From tomorrow, to commemorate the Battle of Britain 80th anniversary, Soul City Wanderer will present a thee-part blog: The Blitz before the Blitz. As a prelude, here is a review of a book that concisely lays out the kind of pressure the country was under eighty years ago.
I picked up Five Days in London by John Lukacs about a year ago from the local library. It was recommended as the best account of the kind of pressure that the United Kingdom was under in the days leading up to the Battle of Britain: Neville Chamberlain just had resigned as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had just taken up his crucial first few days in office, and the ‘wolf’ was at the door.
The Hungarian-American author Lukacs, died last year at the age of 95. As a young man during WWII, he had gone into hiding for two years in a cellar in Budapest. He managed to escape forced labour and evade deportation to a Nazi death camp. Soon after the war he fled Hungary as it headed towards a Communist regime. He emigrated to the United States, where he worked as respected professor of history in Philadelphia until 2003. He was also Visiting History Professor at Princeton.
Lukacs pulls no punches in this book. He does not negate Hitler’s strategic mind and also controversially suggests how he may have purposefully allowed Britain off the hook at Dunkirk. In addition, he reminds the reader how mesmerising Hitler was. It is incredible to think how many politically powerful sympathisers the German leader had in France, the UK and the USA right up to, and beyond, the outbreak of war. The admiration from former Liberal British Prime Minister Lloyd George, for example, is quite disturbing.
What I already knew, but was confirmed in the book, was what a defeatist attitude the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had, and what a snake the American Ambassador to Britain (JFK’s father Joe Kennedy), was, especially towards the UK.
Other things I gleaned:
- Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rented out his house in London to the German ambassador Von Ribbentrop, a man said to have out-Hitlered Hitler.
- Hitler would have been contemptuous of Britain if it had sued for peace.
- Contemporary newspapers were not necessarily a mirror of public opinion (no more that Twitter is reflective of public opinion today).
I particularly enjoyed the author’s use of John Betjeman’s satirical poem In Westminster Abbey in relation to the desperation of the situation, which peaked in the ‘National Day of Prayer’ on Sunday May 26th, 1940.
(While we’re on the subject of church, a classic Winston witticism is revealed in the book: A journalist is enquiring about Churchill’s religious beliefs, and asks if he’s ‘a pillar of the church?’ ‘No’ replies Churchill, ‘more of a flying buttress.’).
All in all, I really enjoyed this account of those few crucial days in May 1940. The book is said to be one of the main inspirations for the multi-Oscar-winning 2017 movie Darkest Hour. It doesn’t surprise me. The author’s portrayal of events makes for dramatic reading.
Five Days in London – May 1940 by John Lukacs (Yale. 1999).