(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
Churchill always understood what the confrontation between Nazi Germany and Britain and its Empire involved.
Even before the Nazis seized power, Churchill warned they posed “a threat to civilization.” A war with Nazi Germany, he said, would be about defending “all our freedoms” and avoiding “a new dark age.”
So it may seem strange to some to learn that in the early months of war between the two nations – “the phony war” period from Sept., 1939 to May, 1940 when there was almost no land fighting between the two countries – there were a good number of people in Britain, including some government leaders, who weren’t quite sure what Britain’s war aims were.
From Lynne Olson’s Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill To Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007):
Having tried to avert war until the last minute and still determined to avoid combat, the prime minister and his men simply didn’t know what to say on the subject.
When [foreign secretary] Lord Halifax asked [civil servant and permanent under-secretary for foreign affairs] Alexander Cadogan what he thought Britain’s war aims should be, Cadogan replied that he saw “awful difficulties” in anything that might be proposed.
“I suppose the cry is ‘Abolish Hitlerism,’” Cadogan wrote in his diary. “But what if Hitler hands over to Goering? Meanwhile, what of the course of operations? What if Germany now sits tight? … What do we do? Build up our armaments feverishly? What for? Can we last out the course? Time is on our side. What are the Germans doing meanwhile? Must try and think this out…”
Such confused and muddled thinking was the target of a limerick making the rounds in Whitehall:An elderly statesman with gout
When asked what the war was about
Replied with sigh
My colleagues and I
Are doing our best to find out.