Eighty years ago, the guns fall silent, but only in a miserable conflict between former allies and then only for a while


The German invasion of the USSR helped save the career of the British ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, an extreme left-wing Labour politician, who had been sent to Moscow in the hope that that his immense indulgence towards Stalin would count in Britain’s favour. It had not; the Soviets had been more suspicious of Cripps's parade of pro-Soviet sentiments than they would have been a frankly capitalist envoy. Cripps’s waywardness and general neglect of British interests as distinct from apologising for the cause of Stalinism had led to his being recalled to London by the Foreign Office just before Barabarossa with a  permanent return to the UK in disgrace as a distinct possibility. As it was, he now found himself signing an Anglo-Soviet treaty pledging each country to wage war against Nazi Germany and not to make a separate peace. The Soviet signatory was foreign minister Molotov, albeit under the watchful eye of Stalin himself. It was one of the corner-stones of Cripps’s spurious reputation as the man who brought the Soviet Union into the war that he was to use to promote himself as a left-wing alternative to Churchill.

Optimists on relations between the western powers and Japan took heart from the dismissal of the foreign minister Matsuoka, who had been an outspoken advocate of friendship with the Fascist powers. The entire cabinet had resigned and was then re-formed without Matsuoka. The optimists were wrong. Matsuoka was removed because he had advocated an immediate attack on the Soviet Union, expecting the German invasion to succeed without difficulty. The burden of such an operation would have fallen on the Japanese army which was deeply embroiled in China and little inclined to adventures further west. The “strike South” enthusiasts of the Imperial Navy were a far stronger force and were equally disinclined to promote a venture which would showcase the army. Matsuoka’s desire to attack the Soviet Union had swung him against the navy’s cherished project of attacking the British in Singapore, probably the decisive nail in his coffin.

Isolationism remained a powerful force in the US. The America First committee seized on an opportunity presented by the eccentric British MP Colonel Josiah Wedgwood on a visit to America. Wedgwood was reported as urging the US to “take responsibility” and making other inflammatory comments. America First publicly called for Wedgwood to be expelled from the US on the grounds that he was attempting to, “divide our people.”

The British were forced to take action to deal with the first major man-power crisis of their war effort. When export sales of coal to German and Italy collapsed, the mine-owners had instinctively cut back on labour. With Britain in a state of industrial autarky it became obvious that every ton of coal possible would have to be mined. Recruitment by the armed forces and availability of work in other, far more agreeable sectors of the economy, meant that it was extremely difficult to bring former miners back to the pits. The government introduced compulsory registration for anyone who had been a miner since 1935. Mandatory return to the pits was distinctly in the offing.

An armistice was signed between the Vichy French government of Syria and Lebanon and the attacking British. Severe fighting was still underway and the midnight ceasefire that was a prelude to the armistice actually meant that the guns fell silent at that moment. The apparently pleasing symbolism could not disguise the bitterness of the conflict, which was destined not to the last between Vichy and Britain.


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