Reading up on Churchill on Wikipedia, I found reports on a discussion inside the British cabinet whether to ask for peace following the Fall of France (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1940_War_Cabinet_Crisis). It seems that initially there was a majority for that, and that it took significant effort by Churchill to sway his ministers.

One argument put forth by Churchill was that any condition Hitler would ask for then would be so onerous, that fighting and loosing the war wouldn't be much worse. Moreover, the plan was not to approach Hitler directly, but to make first contact with Mussolini.

Now, none of Hitler's fundamental war goals directly impacted the British Empire. He fought them because they wouldn't let him take other peoples land, not because he wanted to take their land. In fact, he could even have given some stuff back he had already conquered (say Norway) in a peace treaty.

So, did the British government consider accepting the annexation of Poland as such a near-worst scenario? Or did they view Hitler's goals much differently from my own reading, and if so, who is right?

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    This question would be improved by citations & evidence of research. Lots of assertions, but no context.
    – MCW
    Jun 21, 2017 at 22:08
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    @MarkC.Wallace It's good that you made me recheck the wiki page, as I was wrong regarding the timing by about 2 weeks.
    – Arno
    Jun 21, 2017 at 22:38

4 Answers 4


You have the timing wrong. When the events described occurred France not only had not yet fallen, but only the small portion of France north of the Somme and Aisne rivers was in German possession; less than the Germans occupied throughout the First World War. The evacuation of Dunkirk had just begun and would continue for another 6 days, eventually evacuating 340,000 British and allied troops. Paris has not yet fallen, and the stalwart M. Reynaud is still French Premier.

Here is the timeline: enter image description here

The most relevant quote I believe is the following from Churchill (Their Finest Hour):

There occurred a demonstration which considered the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.

Far from it being a difficult task to rally (unanimous!) support of the Outer Cabinet for stout resistance, Churchill expresses pleasant surprise at the enthusiasm of the unanimous support received.

So while there remained War Cabinet ministers who still harboured doubts on the wisdom of stout resistance (Chamberlain and Halifax most notably), there seems to have been no such members of the Outer Cabinet.

Update re claim that M. Reynaud's statement "We are defeated" refers to France, in the war as opposed to French armies defending the Meuse River line."

As described in Their Finest Hour, Chapter 2: The Battle of France, Churchill and Ismay personally delivered to Reynaud and Daladier, in the wee hours of the morning of May 17, word that their request for an additional 10 RAF fighter squadrons in France was approved.

Daladier never spoke a word. He rose slowly from his chair and wrung my hand.

Clearly,two full days after the alleged statement and interpretation, Reynaud still believed that the French had fight remaining. May 15 is four days before Reynaud sacks Gamelin and replaces him with Weygand; ten days before Belgium surrenders, eleven days before the evacuation at Dunkirk begins; twenty days before the evacuation ends; and twenty six days before Paris is declared an open city and surrendered.

Note the common belief by German generals that the delays (of perhaps 48 hours) surrounding the appointment of Weygand were the most critical of the entire campaign, when their forces were most vulnerable to the counter-attack that Weygand attempted to orchestrate upon taking command.

  • While (unlike a previous version of my question had indicated) France had not yet fallen, this discussion in the cabinet seems to have been based on the shared assumption that this was about to happen. After all, the debate was about whether or not the British Empire should continue to fight on its own, not about whether to abandon the French.
    – Arno
    Jun 21, 2017 at 23:44
  • @Arno: Actually no - it was still assumed by all concerned (in power) that it was feasible for the French to fight on, as they had in both 1870-71 and 1914. This was about attempts to keep Mussolini on the sidelines while France was in such dire straits and Commonwealth forces mobilized. Even when France surrendered 4 weeks later in late June, after even more extensive casualties suffered, they had more operational tanks then the Germans did. The French simply lacked the will to fight on after the Maginot line was flanked. Jun 21, 2017 at 23:53
  • According to the linked Wikipedia article, already on May 15th Reynaud declared to Churchill that France was defeated. The talks Halifax had with Mussolini were meant to keep Italy neutral, but the proposed talks were about making peace with Germany once France had fallen. Of course the wiki article might be wrong and misleading, in which case evidence of this would constitute a good answer to my question.
    – Arno
    Jun 21, 2017 at 23:59
  • Weren't the 112,000 French and Belgian allies part of the 338,226 (or 340,000, "rounded") troops evacuated from Dunkirk rather than "additional"?
    – Tom Au
    Jun 24, 2017 at 12:21
  • @TomAu: Not according to Churchill in Their Finest Hour. Jun 24, 2017 at 12:46

I think Pieter's interpretation of events is correct. You can read a lot more about the context for what was being discussed in May 1940 in the Cabinet Papers and related documents (series CAB 65-68 & CAB 195), many of which are now available as PDF downloads from the UK National archives.

  • Thanks for the pointer. I read the first entry in the CAB 66 file (dated May 26th). This starts with "The memorandum <British strategy in a certain eventuality>" envisages the steps which should be taken <if French resistance were to collapse completely>. As, however, French resistance is considerably weakened, it seems desirable to now consider..." So there definitely was some discussion about what the British should do once France falls.
    – Arno
    Jun 22, 2017 at 0:20
  • @Amo Absolutely. But Pieter's point about the War Cabinet rallying around Churchill who was advocating continued resistance is also correct. Jun 22, 2017 at 0:24
  • Note that Churchill put great value in following proper process; and some questions must be asked and answered even when the answer is (believed to be) known. This also has the affect of putting everyone on record, to help prevent second guessing of decisions that can undermine morale. It was certainly correct to put the question to the cabinet of what to do in certain eventualities, as this would impact on the proper usage of the reserve RAF squadrons. ... Jun 22, 2017 at 0:30
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    Churchill was adamant throughout the second half of the campaign that the RAF's reserve fighter squadrons, twenty five in number, would remain in Britain (rather than be assigned to France) because the critical moment of the campaign would not be until after (and unless!) France had fallen. He could only make this claim and decision in good faith if the Cabinet fully intended to continue the fight after France fell. Jun 22, 2017 at 0:33

As for the wider context, I think your question can be rephrased along theses lines: "Was reaching an accommodation with Hitler's Germany, based on mutual recognition of interests possible at that stage, as an alternative to fighting a war?".

Such an approach had been called appeasement and that was precisely the previous British (and French) policy, culminating in the Munich Agreement of 1938. What transpired soon after was that Hitler broke the agreement, although previously he had declared himself perfectly satisfied in all his demands.

In other words, it was impossible to make a gentlemen's agreement with one who was manifestly not a gentleman.

Some, like Churchill, knew this all along. Others, like Chamberlain, needed the Munich fiasco to drive the point home, but by May 1940 nobody trusted Hitler.

  • +1"it was impossible to make a gentlemen's agreement with one who was manifestly not a gentleman."
    – Tom Au
    Jun 24, 2017 at 12:24
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    When Sumner Welles visited Rome, Berlin, Paris, and London in March 1940 to explore the possibilities for peace, he found that the French were willing to entertain the prospect of negotiating with a German Nazi government led by somebody other than Hitler (ie. Goering) if the circumstances were right, but the British government would not negotiate with a German Nazi government under any circumstances. That bridge had been burnt. Feb 22, 2020 at 7:14

Britain kept on fighting because of its geostrategic interest. They refused to accept a world where Britain would be at best a junior partner of Germany, a satellite country in the worst and not that unlikely scenario. Every nation wants to be independent, the question is how much they are willing to pay for it and what loosing independence mean. UK lost 450,900 people, 0.94% of its population. Was it worth it? Perhaps.

Of course in the end they end up being the junior partner of USA, but there is a huge difference between National Socialist Germany and free market USA.

  • The war cost Britain, its domestic prosperity and numerous lives. Had the United States not blundered into the war, Britain’s strategic position would have been grave. On the other hand, Hitler’s proclaimed objective was the Soviet Union. If, as is likely, the Soviets were able to hold off Hitler for the first year or so, Hitler’s prospects would have been greatly diminished. Neither the United States nor Britain was necessary parties to the war. Though of course speculative, it’s again likely that either the Soviets or Germany would have emerged dominate from their war.
    – TomO
    Aug 2, 2017 at 17:21
  • I recall seeing a quote from Churchill along the lines you mention, that he in fact had to choose a future for Britain, either dominated by the United States or Nazi Germany. Feb 22, 2020 at 7:25
  • @TomO Britain had no interest whatsoever in seeing either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia dominant in Europe. Fighting Germany with the USSR as an ally was the best means to achieve this. Feb 22, 2020 at 7:32

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