Eighty years ago, Chamberlain is finally held to account for his dismal record
The wheels completely fell off the British operation in southern Norway. It had achieved nothing and the forces involved had suffered severe casualties. They had been entirely outclassed by the Germans both in the land and the air. The only option to escape complete destruction was a rapid and full evacuation; the northern element of the British forced embarked at Namsos, where it had landed. The only saving grace for the British that this was accomplished smoothly with little interference by the Luftwaffe. It was a major military humiliation. After only three weeks on shore the British army had withdrawn leaving most of Norway to its fate.
In the north of the country around Narvik the British and French fought on rather more successfully, helped by the presence of two squadrons of RAF fighters, which provided the air cover that had been sadly lacking around Trondheim. But this was only a very modest compensation.
Inevitably the government had to face a debate in the House of Commons on the conduct of the campaign. The government’s reliable mouthpiece The Times insinuated that the true responsibility for the fiasco lay at Churchill’s door, but that Chamberlain’s weakness of excessive loyalty to failing colleagues meant he would not be punished. Churchill certainly deserved a large share of the blame, but the true topic of the debate was far larger than a single military operation: Norway was another chapter in a history that had begun in appeasement, minimal resistance to Hitler's aggression and a merely phony war. All could be laid at Chamberlain's door. The government upped the ante by making the vote one of confidence in the government.
Chamberlain's scheme to fob blame off on Churchill was misplaced. However bad his leadership might have been on Norway, Churchill had consistently opposed appeasement. Churchill stood at the pivotal moment of his political career. He was the most likely beneficiary of a defeat for Chamberlain, but he could not, of course, be seen as trying to engineer such a defeat and had to display faultless loyalty.
Rarely has a single debate featured so many moments of legend: Sir Roger Keyes speaking in the full dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet; Chamberlain suicidally boasting that he still had “friends in this house”; Lloyd George sarcastically admonishing Churchill not to serve as an air-raid shelter to protect his colleagues from splinters; most famous of all, Leo Amery’s inaccurate quote of Oliver Cromwell's dismissal of the Long Parliament, "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
The temper of the House was hostile and nerves were badly frayed. Chamberlain had always treated his political opponents with smug contempt; now they were paying him back. Aviation pioneer and pro appeasement Tory MP John Moore-Brabazon took an illicit photograph of Chamberlain speaking with a hidden camera. It is a tribute to the strength of parliamentary tradition and custom that this is one of the few such images to exist, but an occasion of the importance and drame of the Norway debate deserved the breach.
The government won the vote but with a catastrophically reduced majority of 81 votes compared to a normal majority of rather fewer than 300. 41 government MPs voted with Labour and another 80 or so abstained. Conservative MPs already serving in the armed forces were notable amongst the rebels. Chamberlain had been mortally wounded and left the House visibly shaken by the depth of hostility towards him and the scale of the revolt.
It is often forgotten that the House of Lords also debated the conduct of the war at the same time. In keeping with its traditions the debate there had little of the rancour of the Commons debate but it did feature another iconic military figure speaking against the government as Keyes had done. Lord Trenchard, almost universally known as the father of the Royal Air Force, criticised the failure of the government to use the RAF to attack the German heartland. It was a telling point which passed almost unnoticed at the time and rapidly vanished in the surge of momentous events that soon broke upon the country. In fact Trenchard’s criticism arose from one of Britain’s greatest military failures that was rooted in the distant past but whose full damage had yet to be seen.