What follows are excerpts from The Second World War, Vol. II: Their Finest Hour by Winston S. Churchill.
Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda. It was taken for granted and as a matter of course by these men of all parties in the State, and we were much too busy to waste time upon such unreal, academic issues. We were united also in viewing the new phase with good confidence. It was decided to tell the Dominions the whole facts. I was invited to send a message in the same sense to President Roosevelt, and also to sustain the determination of the French Government and assure them of our utmost support.
On June 13 I made my last visit to France for four years almost to a day. The French government had no withdrawn to Tours and tension had mounted steadily. I took Edward Halifax and General Ismay with me, and Max Beaverbrook volunteered to come too. In trouble he is always buoyant. This time the weather was cloudless, and we sailed over in the midst of our Spitfire squadron, making however a rather wider sweep to the southward than before. Arrived over Tours, we found the airport had been heavily bombed the night before, but we and all our escort landed smoothly in spite of the craters. Immediately one sensed the increasing degeneration of affairs. No one came to meet us or seemed to expect us. We borrowed a service car from the station commander and motored into the city, making for the Prefecture, where it was said the French Government had their headquarters. No one of consequence was there, but Reynaud was reported to be motoring in from the country, and Mandel was also able to arrive soon.
It being already nearly two o'clock, I insisted upon luncheon . . . we drove through streets crowded with refugee cars. . . . We found a cafe, which was closed, but after explanations we obtained a meal. During luncheon I was visited by M. Baudouin, whose influence has risen in these latter days. He began at once in his soft, silky manner about the hopelessness of the French resistance. If the United States would declare war on Germany it might be possible for France to continue. What did I think about this? I did not discussion the question further than to say I hoped America would come in, and that we should certainly fight on. He afterwards, I was told, spread it about that I had agreed that France should surrender unless the United States came in.
We then returned to the Prefecture where Mandel, Minister of the Interior, awaited us. This faithful former secretary of Clemenceau, and a bearer forward of his life's message, seemed in the best of spirits. He was energy and defiance personified. He was a ray of sunshine. He had a telephone in each hand, through which he was constantly giving orders and decisions. His ideas were simple: fight on to the end in France, in order to cover the largest possible movement to Africa. This was the last time I saw this valiant Frenchman. The restored French Republic rightly shot to death the hirelings who murdered him. His memory is honored by his countrymen and their allies.
Presently M. Reynaud arrived. At first he seemed depressed. General Weygand had reported to him that French armies were exhausted. The line was pierced in many places; refugees were pouring along the roads through the country, and many of the troops were in disorder. The Generalissimo felt it was necessary to ask for an armistice while there were still enough French troops to keep order until peace could be made. Such was the military advice. He would send that day a further message to Mr. Roosevelt saying that the last hour had come and that the fate of the Allied cause lay in America's hand. Hence arose the alternative of armistice and peace.
M. Reynaud proceeded to say that the Council of Ministers had on the previous day instructed him to inquire what would be Britain's attitude should the worst come. He himself was well aware of the solemn pledge that no separate peace would be entered into by either ally. General Weygand and others pointed out that France has already sacrificed everything in the common cause. She had nothing left; but she had succeeded in greatly weakening the common foe. It would in those circumstances be a shock if Britain failed to concede that France was physically unable to carry on, if France was still expected to fight on and thus deliver up her people to the certainty of corruption and evil transformation at the hands of ruthless specialists in the art of bringing conquered peoples to heel. That then was the question which he had to put. Would Great Britain realize the hard facts with which France was faced?
The official British record reads as follows:
Mr. Churchill said that Great Britain realized how much France had suffered and was suffering. Her own turn would come, and she was ready. She grieved to find that her contribution to the land struggle was at present so small, owing to the reverses which had been met with as a result of applying an agreed strategy in the North. The British had not yet felt the German lash, but were aware of its force. They nevertheless has but one thought: to win the war and destroy Hitlerism. Everything was subordinate to that aim; no difficulties, no regrets, could stand in the way. He was well assured of British capacity for enduring and persisting, for striking back till the foe was beaten. They would therefore hope that France would carry on fighting south of Paris down to the sea, and if need be from North Africa. At all events, England would fight on. She had not and would not alter her resolve: no terms, no surrender. The alternatives for her were death or victory.
M. Reynaud replied that he had never doubted England's determination. He was however anxious to know how the British government would react in a certain contingency. The French Government -- the present one or another -- might say: "We know you will carry on. We would also, if we saw any hopes of an early victory. We cannot count on American help. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot abandon our people to indefinite German domination, We must come to terms. We have no choice. . . ." It was already too late to organize a redoubt in Brittany. Nowhere would a genuine French Government have a hope of escaping capture on French soil. . . . The question to Britain would therefore take the form: "Will you acknowledge that France has given her best, her youth and life-blood; that she can do no more; and that she is entitled, having nothing further to contribute to the common cause, to enter into a separate peace while maintaining the solidarity implicit in the solemn agreement entered into three months previously?"
Mr. Churchill said that in no case would Britain waste time and energy in reproaches and recriminations. That did not mean that she would consent to action contrary to the recent agreement.
All the same I thought the issue raised at this point was so serious that I asked to withdraw with my colleagues before answering it. So Lords Halifax and Beaverbrook and the rest of our party went out into a dripping but sunlit garden and talked things over for half an hour. On our return I re-stated our position. We could not agree to a separate peace however it might come. Our war aim remained the total defeat of Hitler, and we felt that we could still bring this about. We were therefore not in a position to release France from her obligation. Whatever happened, we would level no reproaches against France; but that was a different matter from consenting to release her from her pledge.
Before leaving I made one particular request to M. Reynaud. Over four hundred German pilots, the bulk of whom had been shot down by the R.A.F., were prisoners in France. Having regard to the situation, they should be handed over to our custody. M Reynaud willingly gave this promise, but soon he had no power to keep it. These German pilots all became available for the Battle of Britain, and we had to shoot them down a second time.
More to come. . . .