John Kelly is the author of the new book Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain's Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940. His other books include The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People and The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. He lives in New York City and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book focusing on Churchill and Britain in the summer of 1940?
A: I’ve been reading military history since the age of 10. This was a period that always fascinated me. It was romantic as hell, and was a time when everything was clear-cut. There was good and evil, and there was going to be either victory or defeat.
The elements were so clear, and everyone, high and low, knew what was at stake and the sacrifice that would be necessary. It was romantic in the old-fashioned sense of the word—almost ennobled.
One of Churchill’s geniuses was he created an atmosphere that summer that was almost like theater. His speeches made people feel a little braver, and they ended up rising to his [vision] of them.
I have reservations about Churchill as a strategist, but as a leader, he was unparalleled. In May 1940 it became clear that France was going to fall. British morale was terrible. He came in May 11 [as prime minister]. By July, people were unified behind him.
It was his speeches, and who he was. It wasn’t that he was trying to pander to them. He was an incredibly imposing public figure. People felt he was asking them to rise up to him. Everyone in the country felt, We have to rise to his standard.
Q: You begin the book with a look back at London in July 1919. Why did you decide to open with that particular time?
A: Never again. One million British soldiers were killed in World War I [and France suffered huge losses as well]. That left such a scar on both nations. It affected everything in the interwar period. Pacifism had a strong grip on the nation. That [description] was necessary to establish the hurdles that had to be overcome.
Scarcely a generation after the loss of one million people, how would you talk an antiwar public back into war? If, [as would happen,] Britain was going to lose all its wealth, its standing as a great power, and its empire?
There was a sense Britain was weakened in the Great War, and the empire had been destabilized. They knew, the upper classes knew, one more like that and it was over for Britain as a great power.
I felt a description of that period was necessary to give context. Plus it’s fun to write those types of scenes—parades, crowds.
Q: You write that “well into the spring of 1940, Britain’s war aims were kept vague and ill defined.” Why was that? What were some of the options under consideration at that point?
A: Churchill was not yet prime minister. Chamberlain was still prime minister. Until March, early April, he still believed in the original strategy: We are not going to have to fight a great land war against Germany. We are going to beat them by blockade, air power, that’s our strategy—and France will provide the ground troops; we will provide a token [number].
The term for that is limited liability. If Britain is going to commit itself to a war on the Continent, it should do its utmost to limit liability. If there’s fighting in the air and on the sea with few people on the ground, that’s limited liability.
Even when Churchill became prime minister, the amount of ground troops Britain put into the war was always low. In North Africa, they had the 8th Army, 250-300,000 men. Maybe half a million in Italy.
It wasn’t until the Normandy invasion [in 1944] that Britain started putting a large ground army in. [Because of] their losses in World War I—they didn’t have a large supply of men.
The RAF had one million men—it barely existed in World War I…Even in 1944-45, [British strategy] was still control of the sea and control of the air. Those are the two least expensive ways to fight a war, although more than half the men in the bomber command were killed…
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Winston Churchill’s role during World War II?
A: …I have mixed feelings about Churchill. What he gave his country in the summer of 1940 was really great leadership. I don’t think he was a great strategist. In 1940-42, Britain was defeated everywhere. In North Africa, [German General Erwin] Rommel had half the men and half the tanks Britain had. It was a disastrous period, and as prime minister, Churchill was responsible for that.
By ’44, when the Allies invaded at D-Day…Roosevelt and Stalin were running the war. I don’t think after 1940 [Churchill] had a great war. He wanted to continue fighting in Italy rather than going [into] France, which made no sense. The quickest way to Berlin was through France.
[But] a great leader he was.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Churchill and [British Foreign Secretary] Lord Halifax in 1940?
A: Tense. They were both respectful to one another. Churchill was in a politically vulnerable position that summer. He knew if Halifax resigned, and left the Cabinet, that could hurt him with the Conservative Party. A lot of the Conservative Party distrusted him…this all made him vulnerable to the leading members of his war cabinet…
As soon as he felt powerful enough, in December 1940, he got rid of Halifax and sent him to the U.S. as ambassador…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My portrait of Churchill—he’s shown more as a politician determined to get his way, and willing to be unscrupulous to get his way…I wanted to portray him more realistically, without the hagiography that usually surrounds him.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb