Eighty years ago, fate consolidates Churchill's hold on power and the dictators mount a sham show of solidarity


The former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned from the War Cabinet and the leadership of the Conservative Party because an operation to address his stomach cancer had proved unsuccessful. Health reasons were given publicly as the explanation but the full gravity of Chamberlain’s illness was not. In the ruthless calculus of politics Winston Churchill was the main beneficiary. Even after victory in the Battle of Britain many, if not most, Conservatives still distrusted him and had looked to Chamberlain as the unchallenged leader of the party to act as a restraining influence and the guarantor of the party’s true values and spirit. The anti-Churchill forces in the Conservative Party were strong but not strong or sufficiently organized to have built up a rival to Churchill, who was able to step into Chamberlain's place as party leader unopposed.  There was a minor reshuffle of ministers triggered by the need to replace Chamberlain as Lord Privy Seal. Two new ministers joined  the War Cabinet: Kingsley Wood offered a nod to the old regime as a former close ally of Chamberlain, but in reality his star had been waning for some time; Ernest Bevin for Labour was a far more formidable figure. Churchill’s mastery of domestic, coalition politics was almost complete.

The RAF found itself with a new professional head. Sir Cyril Newall who had been Chief of Air Staff since 1937 was shunted off to New Zealand as Governor General with a consolatory Order of Merit. One insider read this as part of a purge of the older, excessively conservative pre war generation. Certainly Newall’s successor Sir Charles Portal was 47 to Newall’s 54. The reality was uglier. Newall had been undermined by a clash with Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s close friend and Minister of Aircraft Production, an organisation almost pre-pre-programmed to come into conflict with the established professionals of the RAF. In a particularly nasty intrigue a staff officer close to Beaverbrook had circulated an anonymous memorandum attacking Newall’s fitness for the job. Two of his predecessors, Trenchard who still commanded immense respect and Salmond joined the pack hunting Newall.

Hitler and Mussolini met on the Brenner Pass to discuss the future direction of the war. The meeting was inconclusive but gave a clear idea of the limits to the alliance between the two men, although the meeting did point to a move towards the Balkans. The conversation was chiefly notable for what was omitted: Hitler did not discuss his plans for an attack on the Soviet Union, which Mussolini would have had the minimal good sense to challenge; Mussolini for his part concealed his plans to invade Greece, a project partly motivated by Mussolini’s desire to show that he, like Hitler, could launch aggression without consulting his partner. The most noticeable outward apparent consequence of the Brenner meeting  was the entry of German troops into Rumania, supposedly to defend its oilfields, in reality to transform it from a weak ally into a vassal. The long-stalled Italian offensive in Egypt also gave signs of resuming.

Largely unprompted by the Germans, the Vichy government of France launched a campaign of anti-semitic legislation. Jews were banned from elected office and the higher ranks of public service, both civil and military. They were also removed from positions capable of influencing opinion: teaching in public schools; editing newspapers; directing films.  Jews who had served in action were exempted but the move. Prefects were authorised to organise detention camps for Jews of foreign nationality, in practice refugees from Nazism. The Dreyfus affair had occurred barely a generation before and these measures showed the extent to which anti-Jewish feelings were rooted in France, especially the conservative and downright reactionary forces powerful in Vichy.

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