Garbo & Co

Paul Addison

  • 1940: Myth and Reality by Clive Ponting
    Hamish Hamilton, 263 pp, £15.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 241 12668 1
  • British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. IV: Security and Counter-Intelligence by F.H. Hinsley and C.A.G. Simkins
    HMSO, 408 pp, £15.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 11 630952 0
  • Unauthorised Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid 1942 by Brian Loring Villa
    Oxford, 314 pp, £15.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 540679 6

Winston Churchill wrote the heroic version of 1940. In the story as he told it the British were redeemed from the sloth and decadence of the Thirties by the catastrophes of Dunkirk and the fall of France. A welling-up of patriotism united all classes in a determination to fight on. By standing alone against Hitler in the summer of 1940, the British ensured that ultimately the war would be won and the evils of Nazism destroyed for ever.

Now for the Ponting version, in which there is more than a hint of autobiography. At an impressionable age, Ponting explains, he was captivated by Churchill’s war history. But later he began to discover discrepancies between Churchill’s account and the official record, so much so that he now regards the former as a myth which needs to be exposed. A more important factor in Ponting’s disenchantment is left to the reader to supply. As the Ministry of Defence official who leaked secret documents about the Belgrano affair to a House of Commons committee, Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and only escaped conviction thanks to the good sense of the jury. His mission to revise 1940 is a projection into the past of his campaign against secrecy and misinformation in Whitehall.

In Ponting’s view, Britain’s ‘finest hour’ was mainly a triumph of rhetoric over reality. The lesson of 1940 was that Britain was no longer a great power. So vulnerable was Britain in the summer of 1940 that secret plans were laid to sell out Ulster to Eire and the Falklands (a nice touch, this) to Argentina. As the money ran out, the British forfeited their independence and became a client state of the USA, but most of the facts were concealed at the time and swallowed up in the end by the patriotic myth of 1940. Hence the crippling post-war illusion that Britain remained a great power.

Nor were the British a united and confident people in the summer of 1940. The Government was secretly split over the question of whether or not to make peace with Hitler. Deceitful propaganda laid the blame for the failure of the British Expeditionary Force on the French and the Belgians. The upper classes betrayed many symptoms of defeatism and the working classes resented the obvious persistence of social injustice. Morale was low, and almost cracked in the Blitz. Whatever happened in 1940, this was not our finest hour.

Ponting writes well and the clarity with which he summarises the issues calls to mind a model civil servant briefing his minister. He swoops like a hawk on the damning quotation or the telling statistic. But as an exercise in the destruction of myth his book is a disappointment. ‘After fifty years,’ he writes, ‘it is time to face up to reality.’ This is Mr Valiant-for-truth speaking, but in one particular Ponting strikes me as Mr Economical-with-the-truth. There is no acknowledgment of the extent to which his own interpretation borrows from or duplicates the work of previous authors. In the preface he lists a number of myths about 1940 which he alleges to be widely held. But his bibliography contains a long list of books in which these same myths have already been challenged or overturned.

Let us dip into Ponting’s alleged myths. ‘Popular discontent with the Government swept Churchill into the premiership as the war leader acclaimed by all.’ But who believes this? Churchill himself described how the succession to the premiership was fixed at a secret meeting of himself, Chamberlain and Halifax. It has been known for twenty years or more that Halifax was the Establishment candidate, that Conservative MPs refused at first to applaud Churchill in the House, and that it was some time before his authority as prime minister was established.

‘The Blitz, one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted, began when Hitler started the policy of bombing major cities. Well-prepared and efficiently organised emergency services ensured that there were few problems in dealing with the results of the Blitz.’ No doubt this was the picture conveyed by the Ministry of Information in 1940. In part it was true, for the Blitz was one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted – up to that time. It has often been pointed out that the bombing of Berlin on Churchill’s orders preceded the bombing of London on Hitler’s. As for the shocking inadequacy of the emergency services, much of the truth was revealed as early as 1941 by the journalist Ritchie Calder in his book The Lesson of London, and much detailed confirmation has appeared since 1945.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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