Winston Churchill wrote the heroic version of 1940. In the story as he told it the British were redeemed from the sloth and decadence of the Thirties by the catastrophes of Dunkirk and the fall of France. A welling-up of patriotism united all classes in a determination to fight on. By standing alone against Hitler in the summer of 1940, the British ensured that ultimately the war would be won and the evils of Nazism destroyed for ever.
Now for the Ponting version, in which there is more than a hint of autobiography. At an impressionable age, Ponting explains, he was captivated by Churchill’s war history. But later he began to discover discrepancies between Churchill’s account and the official record, so much so that he now regards the former as a myth which needs to be exposed. A more important factor in Ponting’s disenchantment is left to the reader to supply. As the Ministry of Defence official who leaked secret documents about the Belgrano affair to a House of Commons committee, Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and only escaped conviction thanks to the good sense of the jury. His mission to revise 1940 is a projection into the past of his campaign against secrecy and misinformation in Whitehall.
In Ponting’s view, Britain’s ‘finest hour’ was mainly a triumph of rhetoric over reality. The lesson of 1940 was that Britain was no longer a great power. So vulnerable was Britain in the summer of 1940 that secret plans were laid to sell out Ulster to Eire and the Falklands (a nice touch, this) to Argentina. As the money ran out, the British forfeited their independence and became a client state of the USA, but most of the facts were concealed at the time and swallowed up in the end by the patriotic myth of 1940. Hence the crippling post-war illusion that Britain remained a great power.
Nor were the British a united and confident people in the summer of 1940. The Government was secretly split over the question of whether or not to make peace with Hitler. Deceitful propaganda laid the blame for the failure of the British Expeditionary Force on the French and the Belgians. The upper classes betrayed many symptoms of defeatism and the working classes resented the obvious persistence of social injustice. Morale was low, and almost cracked in the Blitz. Whatever happened in 1940, this was not our finest hour.
Ponting writes well and the clarity with which he summarises the issues calls to mind a model civil servant briefing his minister. He swoops like a hawk on the damning quotation or the telling statistic. But as an exercise in the destruction of myth his book is a disappointment. ‘After fifty years,’ he writes, ‘it is time to face up to reality.’ This is Mr Valiant-for-truth speaking, but in one particular Ponting strikes me as Mr Economical-with-the-truth. There is no acknowledgment of the extent to which his own interpretation borrows from or duplicates the work of previous authors. In the preface he lists a number of myths about 1940 which he alleges to be widely held. But his bibliography contains a long list of books in which these same myths have already been challenged or overturned.
Let us dip into Ponting’s alleged myths. ‘Popular discontent with the Government swept Churchill into the premiership as the war leader acclaimed by all.’ But who believes this? Churchill himself described how the succession to the premiership was fixed at a secret meeting of himself, Chamberlain and Halifax. It has been known for twenty years or more that Halifax was the Establishment candidate, that Conservative MPs refused at first to applaud Churchill in the House, and that it was some time before his authority as prime minister was established.
‘The Blitz, one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted, began when Hitler started the policy of bombing major cities. Well-prepared and efficiently organised emergency services ensured that there were few problems in dealing with the results of the Blitz.’ No doubt this was the picture conveyed by the Ministry of Information in 1940. In part it was true, for the Blitz was one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted – up to that time. It has often been pointed out that the bombing of Berlin on Churchill’s orders preceded the bombing of London on Hitler’s. As for the shocking inadequacy of the emergency services, much of the truth was revealed as early as 1941 by the journalist Ritchie Calder in his book The Lesson of London, and much detailed confirmation has appeared since 1945.
‘By the end of 1940 Britain was still a great power and firmly established on the road to victory.’ This may be a commonly held view, but a reading of Correlli Barnett’s Collapse of British Power (1969) ought to dispel it. It was Barnett who first argued that Britain’s financial crisis marked the end of independence and the conversion of Britain into an American satellite.
I could go on. Ponting is so censorious of others that his own work invites a similar puritanical critique. But the main weakness of the book is the determination to pick out and play up all the negatives: the panics, fears and divisions. They were present, of course, and must be given their due. In May and June it was touch and go whether the façade of national unity would be preserved. Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, favoured negotiations with Hitler and quarrelled with Churchill over the issue. A resignation by the ‘Holy Fox’ at this critical juncture would have split the country into warring factions of appeasers and anti-appeasers. If Hitler himself had been more skilful in diplomacy, he could have achieved the same effect by the announcement of ‘moderate’ peace terms. But where does this leave the Ponting thesis? The crucial fact about Britain in 1940 is that the doubts and divisions were overcome. Churchill outmanoeuvred the peace party and won almost universal consent for his own policy of total war.
Ponting insists that morale in general was poor, and buttresses his case with extracts from the daily reports of the Ministry of Information. ‘By mid-June,’ he writes, ‘there was a widespread belief in the inevitability of invasion and doubts as to whether Britain could go on to victory.’ As evidence of low morale this is hardly compelling. More striking is the fact that between 14 May and 30 June one and a half million men responded to Anthony Eden’s appeal to join the Local Defence Volunteers. Dad’s Army may have been a bit of a joke, but it was not a sign of defeatism.
During the Blitz the men from the Ministry sometimes painted a grim picture of desperation and near-panic in the devastated areas. Yet these were initial reactions based on shock. As Tom Harrisson observed, the principal lesson of the Blitz was the capacity of people to adapt and endure in the most trying and dangerous circumstances. In the case of Coventry, industrial production actually rose in the weeks following the Blitz. The missing factor in Ponting’s analysis is popular patriotism. A.J.P. Taylor tells how, after the fall of France, strangers would stop him in the street and say: ‘Poor old Hitler. He’s done for himself now that he’s taken us on.’ Here was the consciousness tapped by Churchill and Priestley on the radio, a conviction that Britain was best, a free country, and well worth fighting for. Ponting is inclined to argue that the myth of 1940 was contrived in Whitehall by propagandists. But all they did was to play upon popular beliefs which they shared.
There is much thwarted patriotism in the writing of modern British history. The British enjoyed a remarkably ‘good war’ by comparison with most of their European neighbours, but historians wring their hands over the price that was paid in concessions to the Soviet Union, the United States, or both. Ponting is an impassioned critic of the Anglo-American alliance and the consequent myth of the ‘special relationship’. It is not clear whether he believes there was an alternative, and if so what it was. The problem for patriots in 1940 was the necessity of selling out to somebody, and as the choice lay between Germany and the United States, there was obviously much to be said for the Americans. In Ponting’s view, Britain’s dependence on the United States gave rise to a paradox. The special relationship demonstrated that Britain was no longer a great power: but the myth of the special relationship persuaded the British that they were still a great power after all. Whether this theory would stand up to close examination I do not know. But 1940 is plainly too small a canvas for the development of Ponting’s ideas on the subject. Perhaps he ought now to write a fully-researched history of the Anglo-American relationship from Dunkirk to Suez. But if he does, I hope he will adopt a more tolerant approach to the past. In his present book he is very much the punitive schoolmaster. The class of 1940 get their bottoms whacked for failing to practise open government and refusing to learn the lessons of history.
The trouble with this approach is that censoriousness drives out curiosity, and the past loses much of its interest and variety. Take Ponting’s treatment of the class structure. I am sure he is right to point out that class distinctions were still quite blatant in the summer of 1940. But as he disapproves of them he puts them down on the debit side as another of the cracks in the façade of national unity. It could be, however, that the possession of a stable and familiar class structure was the key to the successful organisation of the war effort. There were millions of deferential, obedient men and women in the Britain of 1940, and above them hundreds of thousands of individuals just longing to organise them. At the very top, pushful young men with old school ties were searching out opportunities for fame and fortune. The state had only to tap the resources of the class system to generate the dynamic of the war effort.
The Nazis, meanwhile, knew little about Britain and understood even less. In the Thirties the Soviet Union ran the Communist Party in Britain with some success, and recruited spies in the heart of the British Establishment. The Nazis, by comparison, were absolute incompetents. The British Union of Fascists never received a penny from Berlin, nor was it exploited for purposes of intelligence or subversion. At the outbreak of war there were only six German agents working in Britain. Five were rounded up, leaving only a Welsh engineer equipped with a wireless-set which the Germans had sent via the left-luggage office at Victoria. But there was one fact of which his German controllers were unaware. In August 1939 the Welshman had been denounced to the Police as a German agent by his wife and son. To save himself, he had offered his services to MI5. Later on, the Germans dispatched other agents to Britain, but every one of them was caught and executed, or turned into a double agent.
The Abwehr, the German espionage agency, was a credulous organisation. A Spaniard living in Lisbon sent them long and colourful letters supposedly originating in England. A careful reading of the press, supplemented by such works as the Blue Guide to England, enabled him to invent a series of reports which convinced the Abwehr of his reliability. ‘There are men here who would do anything for a litre of wine,’ he reported as if from Glasgow. In 1942 he moved to England and MI5 adopted him as an agent under the code-name ‘Garbo’. With the aid of his case-officer, ‘Garbo’ proceeded to invent a fictional cast of sub-agents under his control. Graham Greene could not have improved on it: there was a Gibraltarian waiter, 100 per cent loyal to the German cause; a Welsh nationalist; a violently anti-Russian South African who was also a first-class linguist with contacts in the Ministry of Information.
All this comes from the latest volume of F.H. Hinsley’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, written in collaboration with C.A.G. Simkins. It is essentially a history of MI5, which was responsible for the internal security of Britain and parts of the Empire, and of the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, which handled counter-espionage abroad. Much has been written on the ‘secret war’, and some of it, like J.C. Masterman’s history of the double-cross system, is based on accurate inside information. But as the authors of an official history, Hinsley and Simkins have enjoyed unrestricted access to the intelligence records. Not only have they seen files which are closed for a hundred years in the Public Record Office: they have made use of files which are never going to be placed in the Public Record Office at all – a mystery of mysteries to which no references are supplied. Otherwise they have been free to reveal all – except the more secret methods by which intelligence was gathered.
This is a fascinating book. As might be expected of an official history, a tone of grave and judicious restraint prevails. But there is hardly a dull page, and the darker aspects of the story are offset by touches of high farce. I was delighted to discover that during the Fifth Column panic in the summer of 1940, MI5 accumulated 16 files of reports dealing with suspicious markings on telegraph poles. A memorandum on the subject by a distinguished academic concluded that while the great majority of marks were innocent, ‘it was not possible to say with certainty that all were harmless.’ Wise words indeed!
This is the first official history to address questions of internal security. A full account is given of the battles between the Home Office, on the one hand, and MI5 and the Chiefs of Staff, on the other, over the internment of ‘enemy aliens’. This was the misleading term for refugees, mainly Jewish, who had fled from Hitler’s Germany. The Home Office opposed indiscriminate internment but in the panic atmosphere of June 1940 they were outmanoeuvred by MI5 and the military. This was a blot on the record which Hinsley and Simkins do not attempt to minimise. But after this, the Government adopted a more prudent and sensitive approach to civil liberty. MI5, for example, argued in 1940 that although Fascists and Communists were both opposed to the war, there was a clear distinction between the two. The Fascists were dangerous and had to be locked up; the Communists posed no immediate threat and their detention would only cause resentment among industrial workers. When the security chiefs proposed a Regulation making it an offence to subvert duly constituted authority, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Alexander Maxwell, retorted: ‘There would be widespread opposition to such a Regulation as inconsistent with the historic notions of English liberty. Our tradition is that while orders issued by the duly constituted authority must be obeyed, every civilian is at liberty to show, if he can, that such orders are silly or mischievous and that the duly constituted authorities are composed of fools or rogues.’ The proposed Regulation was dropped.
While the Government tried to avoid crude tactics of repression which might play into the hands of the Communist Party, MI5 was always concerned about the long-term dangers of Communism. Of Philby and company they knew nothing. But they were certainly aware that the Communist Party, numerically small though it might be, had excellent contacts in high places, and was obtaining copies of highly secret government reports. In 1943 MI5 listed 57 Communists with access to secret information, and urged that they be transferred to other employment. Strange to say, nothing happened. As long as Russia was Britain’s ally, Whitehall was inclined to protect the Communists in its midst. The British Communist Party was a conspiratorial organisation and the record of its public activities provides little clue to its influence behind the scenes. Though it would be difficult to get at the truth without appearing to launch a mole-hunt, a measure of glasnost on the part of the comrades is overdue. If only we had a comprehensive account of Communist activities in Britain between 1933 and 1945, we might discover that they exercised far more power and influence than we supposed.
One of the documents which fell into the Party’s hands, and would have made interesting reading for Soviet Intelligence, was a War Office assessment of the Dieppe Raid of August 1942. A tragic fiasco in which six thousand Canadians suffered four thousand casualties in a single morning, the raid was explained away at the time as a rehearsal for D-Day from which invaluable lessons were learnt. But as Brian Loring Villa demonstrates in a riveting work of historical detection, this was a cover-up from which other cover-ups followed in an intricate web of distortion.
The raid was launched by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, without the authorisation of Churchill or the Chiefs of Staff. They had already studied the project and cancelled it on the grounds that a frontal attack against a strongly fortified position would be too hazardous. Mountbatten, however, obtained permission to revive the plan – though not to execute it. In a reckless bid for stardom he then went ahead with it on his own authority while Churchill was abroad. When the gamble went wrong, the cover-up began. Authors were inspired to write books explaining that the raid, though costly, had been a great success. The official Canadian historian was heavily briefed and accepted much of the Mountbatten version. Churchill was more formidable, and threatened to tell the truth in an early draft of his war memoirs. But as he well appreciated, it was in the interests of war heroes to harmonise their interpretations. When Mountbatten submitted his own draft passages on Dieppe, Churchill incorporated them practically verbatim.
In Britain, Mountbatten got away with his apologia: but some Canadians never forgot or forgave, and it is no accident that Mountbatten should finally be run to earth by a professor of history at Ottawa. That said, he is too good a historian to rest content with the role of prosecuting counsel. He does not call for Mountbatten’s conviction as the guilty party. For, as he explains, there was a long chain of responsibility for Dieppe. The Russians were putting intense pressure on Churchill for a second front. Churchill was driving the Chiefs of Staff to prepare a major offensive. In their desperation to find some way of diverting Churchill, the Chiefs of Staff allowed Mountbatten to revive Dieppe. And if they did not officially authorise it, they knew what was going on and let it happen. After all, if ‘Dickie’ wanted a day-trip to Dieppe, why place obstacles in his way? If only it succeeded in getting the Old Man off their backs, it might not be such a bad idea – except, of course, for the Canadians.