Course of History

The Political Consequences of the Phoney War

The Political Consequences of the Phoney War

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The Phoney War had far reaching political consequences for Britain. In 1938, after Munich, Neville Chamberlain had returned a hero as the man who had averted war at the last minute. Now in 1939, with war declared, his star shone less brightly. However, if Chamberlain was to go, who would replace him?

Chamberlain after the Munich Conference

Many historians see September 28th, 1939, as a key date. On this day Chamberlain gave a speech on the war that was considered dull, boring and full of platitudes. It was greeted with apathy. Then Winston Churchill rose to give a speech. As he had joined the government three weeks earlier, this was done with Chamberlain's knowledge and blessing. His speech to Parliament was lucid, factual and well received. He spoke primarily on merchant shipping losses to U-boats. He concluded

“I am entitled to say that so far as they go these figures need not cause any undue despondency or alarm… .we have in fact got more supplies in this country this afternoon than we would have if no war had been declared and no U-boats had come into action. It is not going beyond the limits of prudent statement to say that at any rate it will take a long time to starve us out.”

This difference between the two speeches was not lost on the MP's who sat in the House that day. Compared to the seeming waffle of Chamberlain, Churchill's account was clear and concise. It is said that after the House broke up for the day, the primary discussion among those MP's who sat through the speeches was whether Churchill would be the next leader of Britain. Whether Chamberlain saw Churchill's approach as a challenge will never be known but his next speech to the House was entirely different in tone.

On October 3rd, 1939, Chamberlain addressed the House for his fifth review of the war. On this occasion he took a robust attitude against Germany and he spoke with conviction and clarity:

“No mere assurance from the present German government could be accepted by us. For that government has too often proved in the past that their undertakings are worthless when it suits them that they shall be broken.”

Lloyd George pushed Chamberlain to be more conciliatory in his approach and was immediately attacked by the Conservative MP Duff Cooper who argued that Lloyd George's approach would be seen by some as tantamount to surrender. For the short-term, the anger of many MP's was directed against Lloyd George and Chamberlain was given some respite.

On October 7th, the British government issued a reply to Hitler's speech on the previous day where he implied that he wanted to seek peace with “Churchill and his friends”. It is interesting that Hitler directed his comments twice at Churchill and not Chamberlain. The British government's reply was

“No peace proposals are likely to be found acceptable which do not effectively free Europe from the menace of German aggression… .assurances given by the German government in the past have on so many occasions proved worthless that something more than words will be required today to establish confidence which must be essential to peace.”

Chamberlain gave his own individual reply to Hitler's peace initiative on October 12th:

“Either the German government must give convincing proof of the sincerity of their desire for peace by definite acts or by the provision of effective guarantees of their intentions to fulfil their undertakings or we must preserve in our duty to the end. It is for Germany to make her choice.”

However, whatever politicians did, no-one could disguise the fact that Britain was on the defensive. The sinking of the 'Royal Oak' in October by U-47 at Scapa Flow seemed to show just how vulnerable our navy was, and many had put huge faith in the Royal Navy to protect the shores of Britain. Extra defences were erected at Scapa Flow, but the damage had been done - both to the navy in physical terms and to morale. The move of the Scapa Flow fleet to Rosyth - albeit temporary - did not do a great deal to instill confidence.

Even military decisions had a political overtone. Lord Gort had been put in command of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) but was himself under the command of French generals. However, Gort had been given a 'right of appeal' whereby he could appeal to the British Cabinet if he felt that a decision had been taken by French generals that might endanger British troops. Presumably, if the cabinet agreed with Gort's assessment, the Cabinet would have instructed him to effectively disobey the commands of the French!

Neville Chamberlain survived 1939 politically. He was not to be so lucky in 1940.


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