Five Days in London : May 1940, Paperback

Five Days in London : May 1940 Paperback

Part of the Yale Nota Bene series

3.5 out of 5 (4 ratings)


The days from May 24 to May 28, 1940 altered the course of the history of this century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or to continue what became known as the Second World War.

The decisive importance of these five days is the focus of John Lukacs's magisterial new book. Lukacs takes us hour by hour into the critical unfolding of events at 10 Downing Street, where Churchill and the members of his cabinet were painfully considering their war responsibilities.

We see how the military disasters taking place on the Continent-particularly the plight of the nearly 400,000 British soldiers bottled up in Dunkirk-affected Churchill's fragile political situation, for he had been prime minister only a fortnight and was regarded as impetuous and hotheaded even by many of his own party.

Lukacs also investigates the mood of the British people, drawing on newspaper and Mass-Observation reports that show how the citizenry, though only partly informed about the dangers that faced them, nevertheless began to support Churchill's determination to stand fast. Other historians have dealt with Churchill's difficulties during this period, using the partial revelations of certain memoirs and private and public papers.

But Lukacs is the first to convey the drama and importance of these days, and he does so in a compelling narrative that combines deep knowledge with high literary style.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256 pages, illustrations
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: British & Irish history
  • ISBN: 9780300084665



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Review by

An historian often feels compelled to return to a subject. Sometimes the revisit is to revise earlier theses and sometimes it is to look in closer detail at some aspect of his object of study. John Lukacs works on Churchill and World War II fall into the latter category. Lukacs, and ardent Churchill supporter, sees Churchill as the pivotal figure in the history of the Twentieth Century, and his decision to keep Britain fighting Germany at any cost in the Second World War as his key decision. This is the subject of Five Days in London May 1940. For Lukacs, the critical span of time was May 24th to the 28th, 1940, as the BEF staggered back to the coast and France tottered towards capitulation. Lukacs has covered the early part of the war before, each time with an increased focus on Churchill’s role. In his introduction to Five Days in London May 1940, Lukacs describes this work as “part of a lopsided trilogy: from three pages in The Last European War to fifteen pages in The Duel and then to two hundred and twenty pages in this one.” Lukacs draws from interesting sources. While the main thrust of the narrative is to follow the events in London around the cabinet and, to a lesser extent, on the battlefield in France, he also discusses the mood of the country through newspapers, private diaries and most interestingly, the reports of the Mass-Observation group of the Ministry of Information, pioneers in public polling. On the mood of the public, one gets a surprising result. The newspapers are still full of advertisements for holiday (in France!) and there is as yet an air of some peacetime normalcy. The Mass-Observation group reports are fascinating. The picture that they paint is of a public divided in opinion and morale along sex and class lines-not yet the mythic image we have today of the “Finest Hour”. From the contemporary newspapers, the information is enlightening by its unenlightening nature. The precarious situation on the ground in France is not apparent-there are misleading articles on phantom soon-to-be launched counter-attacks and non-existent ever stiffening French resistance. Whether this is the natural result of the fog of war or a deliberate misinformation campaign is out of the scope of this work and is not explored by Lukacs. A running theme in the works of John Lukacs is his playing down of the communist threat to Western Europe in the interwar era. This is again shown in the dismissive attitude he has towards the Tory leaders Baldwin, Chamberlain and Halifax in the 1930s. They were convinced that the only winners of a European war would be the Soviets and their pawns in the west. Baldwin, for instance, said that the outcome of a European war “would be Germany going Bolshevik”. Lukacs says that in the 1930s in Europe “the Left was weak. Except for the Soviet Union, there was no Communist regime anywhere on the globe; except for small minorities and some intellectuals, Communism did not attract masses of the people.” Here Lukacs is wrong. In Britain, the General Strike was a recent event. On the continent, the abortive revolutions of 1919, the Soviet invasion of Poland, and Kun’s Hungarian Soviet were closer in time to 1940 than 1989 is to us. Lukacs’ statement that the best opponents of Hitler were traditionalist patriots like Churchill, DeGaulle or Stauffenberg and the 1944 plotters overlooks the fact that the Nazis had liquidated the strong communist presence in Weimar through brute force and by co-opting large parts of their agenda. This idiosyncrasy in Lukacs’ thought detracts somewhat from his account of the time. The internal machinations of the cabinet over what to do are the main focus of the narrative. Halifax and Chamberlain were still seeking some sort of accommodation, perhaps with Italy as an arbiter (the Italians having not yet entered the war). Churchill, according to Lukacs, in his heart-of-hearts had no plan but to carry on. First, to try and give a backbone to the French by the knowledge the Britain would carry on no matter what, and secondly and more importantly to do whatever it took to get America in the war. This is where the greatest controversy emerges. Churchill feared that Britain would be reduced to a minor partner or even a satellite of Germany if German domination of Europe was accepted. But as we now know, the price to pay for American entry into the war was Britain reduced to a minor partner of the United States and the ultimate dismantling of the Empire-something the Germans would not have wanted. Lukacs’ focus on those five days allows the reader to see that accidents of history sometimes play out well, Dunkirk being a famous example. As is clear from the cabinet minutes, no one expected the withdrawal to go as well as it did, least of all Churchill. A critical accident I was not aware of was that of Neville Chamberlain. The former prime minister is considered a complete failure by most historians, but his mere presence in the cabinet prevented the loathsome David Lloyd-George from accepting a post as Minister of Agriculture and securing a spot back in power. Had Lloyd-George rejoined the cabinet, given his still considerable prestige, a coalition of himself, Halifax and Chamberlain could have forced a negotiated peace on Churchill, or even removed him from power. Halifax would most likely have been the new Prime Minister in that circumstance, and he was no supporter of Hitler. However, it doesn't take much imagination to see how a defeated and demoralized Britain could turn to someone like Lloyd-George. I think that Churchill and Lukacs both underestimate the damage that a Lloyd-George premiership would have done at that time. Churchill felt that better “someone like Lloyd-George than someone like [Sir Oswald] Mosley”, the leader of the British fascists who was arrested the day before the five days covered in this account. Lloyd-George was an admirer of Hitler (calling him the greatest living German in 1935) and the Nazi/Fascist domestic platform which is similar to the Lloyd-George welfare state in may respects. Given the defeatist attitude that he held even after the entry of the United States and Soviet Union and the success of the Battle of Britain, it is easy to imagine him as the British Petain. There are moments in history where the right man is in the right place at the right time, and certainly one of those moments was the afternoon of May 28th, 1940. Lukacs certainly captures it well. The cabinet minutes record that Churchill said that “the nations that went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.” After a brief adjournment, Churchill called together the whole cabinet-as opposed to just the War Cabinet-and reiterated his point that Britain after an armistice would be reduced to a slave state of Germany. Halifax finally agreed. Churchill’s eloquence and tenacity had won the day.While I disagree with some of Lukacs’ conclusions (for instance-the war could have ended in 1940 with a “Cold War” between Germany and the remaining western powers, and that cold war ultimately ending the same way the actual Cold War did), I think Lukacs does a good job telling the story of those five days and identifying the crucial point. As he insightfully says “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War; in the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940, Churchill was the one that did not lose it.” Contemporary works on the Second World War almost always end on a triumphant note celebrating a Panglossian view of the world since then. It is refreshing to read one that does not. I agree with Lukacs’ final somewhat pessimistic statement on our present and future:“At best, civilization may survive, at least in some small part due to Churchill in 1940. At worst, he helped to give us-especially those of us who are no longer young but who were young then-fifty years. Fifty years before the rise of new kinds of barbarism not incarnated by the armed might of Germans or Russians, before the clouds of a new Dark Age may darken the lives of our children and grandchildren. Fifty years! Perhaps that was enough.”

Review by

this book looks in detail at 5 important days (24th - 28th May) in London in 1940 during which many important decisions were made in the British War Cabinet and by Prime Minister Churchill. These decisions viewed in retrospect were the most cruical days of the war for England and the Allies, and the time when the great debate took place of whether to negotiate with Hitler or to fight on. While I found much of the book very interesting, I think I have bitten off more than I can chew given my very basic knowledge of the history. I have found it somewhat tedious and overly intellectual for my own history poor intellect!I was impressed by the way the author took an almost hour by hour analysis to these days by piecing together the events of the day from many sources: War Cabinet minutes, telegrams, private diaries, letters, memoirs, newspapers and military records. It’s a very detailed book and perhaps that is what bogged me down a bit. Probably a good book for someone who has already a good broad knowledge of the history of the war and who has an interest in the who’s and why’s of political decisions.

Review by

The title pretty much tells you what you’re getting with this one. Lukacs drilled into a short time frame after Winston Churchill became prime minister and some of his cabinet members wanted avoid war with Hitler at all costs. The subject matter is interesting, but his writing style is a bit stale. It feels a lot like he’s defending his dissertation instead of just writing a book. He keeps circling back on a point and explaining why he made it, which was distracting. The actually history was interesting, but the writing style didn’t work for me. He would cite a letter or speech word-for-word as if he’s trying to prove that the point he was making was based on fact. If I’m reading nonfiction books on a historical event I tend to trust that the author has done their research. There’s also usually a biography full of the cited works at the end of the book that people can check if they want to. BOTTOM LINE: I won’t be searching out any more work by this author, but I enjoyed learning more about this short window in history. It was interesting to see how much can hinge upon what seems like a small decision.

Review by

In this long semi-essay, self-described 'reactionary' historian John Lukacs takes a close look at the period May 24 - May 28, 1940. He argues that this was a critical time for Britain; that the then-Viscount Halifax and Winston Churchill squared off within the War Cabinet over whether Britain should open a discussion of peace terms with Hitler via Mussolini. Had Hailfax won, and an initial conversation been started, Churchill thought, the talks would bog down, but word would get out, and Britiain would find its capacity to fight on hopelessly undermined. Lukacs clearly agrees, but - and this is a characteristic of the book -- he doesn't really prove it, he just asserts a view that ties together a whole series of consistent characterizations and interpretations of people and events during these five days. The book is worthwhile for its sketches of Churchill, Halifax, Chamberlain, and a handful of other figures, but mostly reads as a much-expanded footnote to Lukacs book, the Duel, covering the struggle between Churchill and Hitler across 80 days in1940.