Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941

Here are some highlights of this 2020 book by professor Alan Allport:

* A war fought in defence of Poland or Romania would be ‘devastating’; the independence of neither state was of any inherent vital interest to Britain, or possible to guarantee in practice anyway. But it would still be better than ‘doing nothing’. 21
The third thing that had changed was a growing sense among Cabinet members that the public now wanted a tougher line towards Germany. It is hard to know if there was any substance to this. There were no Twitter feeds to monitor in 1939, no big data clouds for policy quants to scrutinise. Opinion polling was in its infancy. The by-election results after Munich were mixed. In November 1938 the Conservative candidate in Bridgwater, Somerset, was defeated by an Independent anti-appeasement challenger. But the following month in Kinross and Western Perthshire, Katharine Stewart-Murray, the duchess of Atholl, who had resigned her seat and the Conservative whip to protest against the Munich deal, failed to be re-elected, defeated by a National government candidate. 22
Politicians who sought to divine ‘what the country wanted’ tended to base their conclusions on such dubious indicators as newspaper leader columns, letters received from constituents or conversations with chauffeurs and groundskeepers. They tended, in other words, to discover what they wanted to discover. All the same, by March 1939 several members of Chamberlain’s government had concluded that the public was tired of conciliating the Nazis. The country, thought Halifax’s principal private secretary, Oliver Harvey, had been ‘undoubtedly stirred’ by events in Prague. 23 It was time for the British lion, its honour compromised at Munich, to show a little bite. 24
All of this helps to explain Chamberlain’s sudden and remarkable decision to offer an unconditional guarantee of support to Poland on 31 March 1939.

* Nor was the Polish Republic a very noble object of sympathy. Whatever Czechoslovakia’s problems, it had at least been a reasonably functional democratic state. Poland had been a military dictatorship in all but name since 1933. Its parliamentary elections were rigged, its opposition politicians routinely hounded. The government maintained its own concentration camp for alleged enemies of the state. Anti-Semitism, much of it officially sanctioned, flourished enthusiastically in Polish public life. It was the Poles who had first floated the idea of exiling unwanted Jews to Madagascar, later a Nazi flight of fancy. Despite owing its own existence to Versailles, Poland was no respecter of the post-war settlement. It had territorial designs extending all the way to the Black Sea. In October 1938, in a moment of brazen opportunism after the Munich conference, it had seized the town of Teschen from Czechoslovakia. The Warsaw government, Daladier thought, had displayed a predatory, ‘cormorant’, attitude towards its victimised neighbour. Relations between the Poles and British and French diplomats in early 1939 were cool, at best. 29
Nonetheless, this was the state to which Britain, along with France, offered a guarantee of support on the last day of March 1939. Other guarantees to Romania and Greece were to follow shortly afterwards. But it was the Polish guarantee that really mattered, because it was Polish territory that Hitler had immediate designs on. Chamberlain was as studiously indifferent about the rights and wrongs of Danzig and the corridor as he had been about the Sudetenland. The purpose of the guarantee was not to prevent any future change to Poland’s frontiers. It said nothing about defending every square inch of Polish territory. It did not preclude further negotiations between Berlin and Warsaw over the fate of Danzig. The British would be the ones to decide whether Poland’s independence had been jeopardised, not the Poles themselves. 30
Nor was the guarantee a realistic strategic commitment. Warsaw was a thousand miles from London. If war broke out, the Poles could not possibly be given any direct military assistance. The guarantee’s point, as Sir Nevile Henderson told the Germans in May, was to establish that ‘making brute force the sole arbiter in international affairs’ was no longer acceptable. 31 It was, said Chamberlain, ‘not perhaps very material’ precisely what Britain was guaranteeing. He was doing it ‘not in order to save a particular victim, but in order to pull down the bully’ by calling his bluff. 32 There was a good deal of cynicism to that, especially given what might happen to an overly emboldened Poland if it decided to defy Nazi negotiations on the strength of Britain and France’s pledges.

* But blockading the Skjaergaard and occupying Narvik would be a blatant violation of Norwegian sovereignty. Britain was, after all, supposed to be fighting the war to defend the very principles of international law that it was now proposing to break. What would other neutrals like the United States think? Churchill was unmoved by what he saw as this pedantic objection. ‘Small nations must not tie our hands when we are fighting for their rights and freedom,’ he insisted.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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