Eighty years ago, Churchill dismantles the last relics of the old regime


 Once again fate had intervened on Churchill’s side. Just as the final illness and death of Neville Chamberlain had allowed Churchill to consolidate his hold on political power, so the death of Lord Lothian, the British ambassador to the US, opened an opportunity for him to dismantle the last serious relics of the old regime that had held him back from power during the long miserable years of appeasement. The first piece of the jigsaw was to replace Lothian. Clearly the Washington embassy was the most critical of all Britain’s representations abroad and it was going to take an exceptional figure to fill the job. Churchill’s first choice was the former prime minister David Lloyd George but he pleaded ill-health; more likely Lloyd George’s dwindling hopes of being installed as a defeatist leader as part of a compromise peace with the Nazis was a more powerful factor. Churchill’s next choice was the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, the most conspicuous holdover from Chamberlain’s premiership. Reluctantly Halifax bowed to the considerable pressure Churchill put him under and accepted.

Halifax’s departure cleared the decks for a useful reshuffle. Anthony Eden, never a Churchill loyalist but a conspicuous anti-appeaser and thus not likely to serve as a rallying point for the Tory old guard, could be promoted to replace him. Eden had impeccable Foreign Office credentials so the move was unlikely to face significant internal opposition. The appointment also sent a signal of committed resistance to the Axis. The promotion threw the Germans into a paroxysm of fury; they had long recognised in him a determined opponent. Goebbels cursed Eden as “a bare-faced conniving piglet” (freches Intrigantenschweinchen).

Lastly, Eden could be replaced at the War Office by finally moving Captain David Margesson from the Whips’ Office, from where he had ruthlessly applied all the disciplinary pressure possible to hold the Tory back-benches steady for Chamberlain’s appeasement. He had declined to leave the Whips’ Office when Churchill formed his government in May but now the pressure was too great. At all events neither the wartime House of Commons in thrall to the coalition or the War Office with Churchill as Minister of Defence were particularly influential. Margesson's sideways move was not, though, a challengingly brutal demotion.

In the western desert Wavell continued to put pressure on the Italian army after the rout of Sidi Barrani in which nearly 40,000 prisoners had been taken. The British army crossed into Libya from Egypt and surrounded the Italian border fortress of Bardia. Bardia was commanded by the famously bearded General Bergonzoli, who passed as a dashing fighting general and promised Mussolini to defend Bardia to the last. His nickname of barba elettrica was translated as “electric whiskers” by the British and Commonwealth troops. The besiegers were led by first Australian troops to play a major part in the war, the 6th Australian Division under Major General Ivan MacKay, who was doubly unusual amongst the generals as a mere reservist soldier and a professional scientist.  


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