They were schooled at Eton and Harrow, Cambridge and Oxford. They lived in Belgravia and Mayfair and spent their weekends at sprawling country houses in Kent, Sussex, and Oxfordshire. They were part of the small, clubby network that dominated English society. And now, in May 1940, these Tory members of Parliament were doing the unthinkable: trying to topple Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the leader of their own party, from power.
They knew they were courting political suicide. They were challenging a powerful, authoritarian prime minister who equated criticism of his policies with treason and employed a full complement of dirty tricks to stamp out dissent. Opponents branded the rebels as unpatriotic. Sir Samuel Hoare, the home secretary, denounced them as “jitterbugs” and claimed that their “alarm-and-scare-mongering” had thwarted a new “golden age of tranquility” in Europe.
Like other former public-school boys, the small band of backbenchers had been taught to value loyalty. But in the current crisis, they believed, they owed loyalty to their country, not to their party or prime minister. For eight months Britain had been at war with Germany, a war that Chamberlain and his government clearly had no interest in fighting, a war being waged, as one Tory rebel said, “without arms, without faith, and without heart.”
Defending Poland was the ostensible reason why Britain and France had declared war on Hitler’s Germany the previous September. But Poland had been quickly devastated by the German invasion, and its Western allies, despite all the treaties and all the promises to that shattered country, did nothing to save it. Was there any other justification for continuing this putative conflict? If so, Chamberlain’s government never said what it was. The government declined to declare its war aims and seemed to prefer a token war, waged as cheaply as possible. The British Army was undermanned, ill equipped, and badly organized. Mobilization was lethargic; able-bodied men were still working as chauffeurs and as doormen at London’s private clubs and luxury hotels. Armament production was proceeding at a snail’s pace, and few, if any, controls had been imposed on civilian manufacturing.
Throughout Great Britain, there was doubt, cynicism, apathy, and distrust. When war was declared, the British braced themselves to bear the shock, believing their cause was just. But when their leaders turned their backs on Poland and nothing more happened, the sense of mission evaporated. More than a million city dwellers had been evacuated to the countryside; a blackout had been imposed, causing tremendous disruption and danger—and for what? Where were the bombs? What was the rationale for turning everyone’s life upside down? Why were the wealthy still throwing lavish parties and drinking champagne at posh nightclubs while workers struggled with shortages and skyrocketing costs? To his radio listeners in America, the CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow reported that the people of Britain felt “the machine is out of control, that we are all passengers on an express train traveling at high speed through a dark tunnel toward an unknown destiny. The suspicion recurs that the train may have no engineer, no one who can handle it.”
Hitler, meanwhile, had no doubts about where he was heading. His forces had taken full advantage of the inertia of Britain and France, knifing through Poland the previous autumn, then, in April, invading Denmark and routing the British Army and Royal Navy from Norway. German troops were now poised to launch a lightning sweep through the heart of Western Europe, striking toward the English Channel.
Socially and militarily, Britain teetered on the edge of disaster. Yet there appeared to be little hope for change. Chamberlain was determined to stay in power, and most of the massive Tory majority in the House of Commons seemed determined to support him. So were the BBC and the nation’s newspapers. Such support was in the national interest, editors rationalized. Criticizing the government in time of war would be disloyal, they declared, splitting the country further and only helping the Germans.
This, then, was what the Tory insurgents faced as they plotted to oust Neville Chamberlain. It was the climax of a two-year struggle against his policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany that had begun with the resignation of Anthony Eden as foreign secretary in February 1938. The fight had been bitter and intensely personal. The rebels were challenging men who had been their comrades in school, who belonged to the same clubs, who in some cases were members of their own families. They were violating the gentlemanly norms of their society; for that, they were vilified as traitors to their party, government, class, and country. Among the rebels themselves, there were deep divisions and dissension. They had trouble finding a leader; only after the war had begun did a senior colleague finally step forward with the courage and conviction to head the revolt.
That leader was not Winston Churchill. Indeed, the Tory dissidents had been given no help at all by the man who once had been the foremost critic of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. When war was declared, Churchill joined the cabinet as first lord of the admiralty. In the months that followed, although he pressed hard in government councils for a more vigorous prosecution of the war, he remained loyal to the prime minister. To the dismay of his anti-appeasement colleagues, Churchill made clear he would do nothing to help bring Chamberlain down. If the prime minister was to be toppled, it must be their doing, not his.
The climax of the anti-Chamberlain movement would come on a soft, golden spring afternoon in early May, when members of the House of Commons gathered to debate Britain’s humiliating defeat in Norway. It was the final showdown between the prime minister and the Tory rebels, joined by their newfound Labour, Liberal, and Independent allies. As they worked feverishly before the debate to line up last-minute support, the rebels knew that the odds of their succeeding were regarded as slim to none. According to Time magazine, “nobody thought on that first afternoon of debate that there was more than an outside chance of dislodging Chamberlain.”
Yet three days later Neville Chamberlain was gone, and Winston Churchill was prime minister. This is the story of how that came to be—and the men who made it happen.
The idea for Troublesome Young Men grew out of research for two previous books that I wrote with my husband, Stanley Cloud, both of them touching on the climactic summer of 1940 in Britain. It was during those terrible yet glorious days that the epic of Winston Churchill really began. “You ask what is our aim?” he declared to the House of Commons on May 13, three days after replacing Chamberlain. “I can answer in one word: victory.” That word remained his touchstone, even as France fell, British troops retreated to Dunkirk, and a German invasion of Britain seemed to loom on the horizon. When Luftwaffe bombers began their assault on Britain later that summer, the new prime minister rallied his countrymen to greatness.
The story of Winston Churchill in 1940 is, without question, one of the most compelling dramas in modern British history. But as I researched the period in more detail, it seemed to me that the behind-the-scenes story leading to Churchill’s accession—that of the Tory rebels defying their party and prime minister—is, in its way, no less significant or engrossing. For if it hadn’t been for those MPs, and for the parliamentary colleagues who joined their ranks in the Norway debate, Churchill would never have been given the chance to rise so magnificently to the challenge, and Britain might well have negotiated for peace with Hitler or even gone down to defeat.
In the past six decades the emergence of Churchill as savior of Britain has come to be viewed almost as a preordained event. He is such a monumental figure, sweeping everyone else from center stage and claiming history’s spotlight, that it’s easy to believe, as many people do, that he stood virtually alone in opposing appeasement before the war and that his rise to power was inevitable. Neither assumption is true. As the historian Paul Addison has noted, “Looking back on the crisis of May 1940 with the benefit of hindsight, we must remark how uninevitable the ‘inevitable’ seemed to be at the time.”
As prime minister, Neville Chamberlain possessed an overwhelming parliamentary majority. He and his men were masters of the House of Commons, manipulating and dominating that body just as they did the other traditional overseer of the government, the press. Using tactics that have striking resonance today, Chamberlain and his subordinates restricted journalists’ access to government sources, badgered the BBC and newspapers to follow the government’s line, and claimed that critics of their policies—in both the press and Parliament—were guilty of damaging the national interest.
Because of Chamberlain’s seemingly impregnable position, the rebels encountered frustration after frustration in their two-year struggle. Fighting appeasement, one of them observed, was “like battering one’s head against a stone wall.” They were forced to wait for a major military setback before they could finally make their move. But once that reversal occurred, the foundation for revolt was firmly in place. Although some historians have argued that Chamberlain’s downfall in the Norway debate was the consequence of “parliamentary political spontaneous combustion,” it was, in fact, the result of the rebels’ actions. “Rebellion,” as the biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen observed, “does not come by sudden chance.” The Tory dissidents pressed for the debate and urged the Labour Party to call for what turned out to be a vote of confidence in Chamberlain. And it was their leader, a former close friend of the prime minister’s, who, in one of the most electrifying speeches ever heard in Parliament, persuaded a number of his colleagues that Chamberlain must go.
On the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe, the House of Commons, prompted by the dissidents, reasserted itself as the guardian of democracy and took the first critical step toward victory. With their action, the rebels underscored the truth of a comment made by Ronald Cartland, the youngest member of their group, who himself would suffer the consequences of the government’s failure to prepare properly for war.
“No government can change men’s souls,” Cartland said. “The souls of men change governments.”
Excerpted from Troublesome Young Men by Lynne Olson. Copyright © 2007 by Lynne Olson. All rights reserved. Published in April 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.