In the 1930s, Winston worked hard and long, but fruitlessly, to impress on the British government that Hitler and Nazi Germany were dangerous and meant war.
Winston’s own grapevine of secret intelligence which came by the “back door” from civil servants, and British Army and Royal Air Force (RAF) officers, dealt with subjects of national importance covered by the Official Secrets Act of 1911.
The Act’s clandestine nature meant that its contents were not supposed to be known to ordinary “back bench” Members of Parliament, as Winston was during the 1930s. Anyone who revealed the secrets to him was running a considerable risk. Their careers and reputations were on the line and, should the authorities become aware of their activities, they were likely to be punished with imprisonment.
Nevertheless, by this means, Winston learned of important deficiencies in aircraft development and pilot training, and of shortages of gas masks, weapons, ammunition, armored cars, tanks, lorries and many other items essential for national defense. Constantly and tirelessly, he used his secret knowledge to tax British government ministers over these shortfalls.
Desmond Morton, Informant
Winston’s earliest informant was Major Desmond Morton, a former colleague of his at the War Office. Morton headed a government intelligence unit that kept track of the movement of raw materials used for armaments by Germany and other European countries.
Winston first contacted Morton in the Spring of 1933. From then on, he used Morton’s information to strengthen his arguments against disarmament. Winston was not entirely alone. The Secretary of State for War, Douglas Hogg, Lord Hailsham, had similar forebodings. Hailsham, like Winston, was labelled a scaremonger and, again like Winston, his warnings were ignored.
Hitler as Total Dictator
On October 14, 1933, Nazi Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, and also from the International Disarmament Conference which had first met at Geneva, Switzerland in 1927.
Ten months later, on August 3, 1934, a day after the death of the aged President of Germany, Paul von Hindenberg, Adolf Hitler assumed sole executive power as both Chancellor and President. In March 1935, the Führer repudiated the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty. At the same time, he revealed that Germany was rearming and that he had recreated the German air force, the Luftwaffe.
Winston labored hard and long in his campaign to impress on a complacent Parliament not only the Nazis’ preparations for war, but also the enormity of their persecutions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities. All the same, members of the House of Commons continued to ignore him.
But though he failed to shift the government from its pacifist stance, he certainly disturbed ministers with the accuracy of his facts. Late in 1934, Desmond Morton passed to Winston a detailed analysis of the Nazis’ air plans.
The British government had by then already agreed a new program, to be completed by 1939, which was intended to build up the RAF. Winston wanted it to be finished much sooner and decided to use Morton’s information to bolster his appeal in Parliament.
The Horrors of Aerial Bombing
Winston delivered his speech in the House of Commons, painting an horrific picture of the effects of intensive enemy bombing on London and other British cities. A week’s persistent bombing of London, he predicted, would kill or maim up to forty thousand people. Incendiary bombs would incinerate whole districts. Millions would be forced to flee for safety to the open countryside.
The speech was greeted with an ovation: Winston’s campaign to alert Parliament to the Nazi peril was already gaining him followers. But in reply Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin obfuscated, denying that Luftwaffe strength was anywhere near that of the RAF.
Ralph Wigram, Informant
In April 1934, a civil servant from the Foreign Office, Ralph Wigram, arrived unexpectedly at Chartwell, Winston’s country home. Wigram brought with him some damning facts which revealed that German aircraft factories were already stepping up production in preparation for war.
Wigram returned to Chartwell a week later with more worrying statistics. These proved that the Luftwaffe already possessed a first-llne strength of eight hundred aircraft, whereas the equivalent figure for the RAF was only 453.
Stanley Baldwin’s Confession
On May 22, in a defence debate in the House of Commons, Stanley Baldwin confessed that his estimate of Luftwaffe strength had been wrong. At last, Winston seemed to be making real progress.
Then, in June 1935, the ailing Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald resigned and was replaced by Baldwin. However, there was no official position for Winston Churchill in the new Cabinet, although despite their clashes, Baldwin admired Winston. He offered Winston a place on the Air Defense Research Sub-committee: Winston’s close friend Professor Frederick Lindemann was a fellow member.
A distinguished if sometimes abrasive Oxford University academic, Lindemann encouraged Winston’s interest in cutting-edge invention. At his first Sub-committee meeting on July 25, Winston was fascinated to learn details of a new facility for detecting enemy aircraft by radio location: the first experiments with radar, as it was later termed, had been very successful.
Winston’s Hopes Dashed Again
In the General Election held on November 14, the Conservative Party was returned to power with a landslide victory that gave them a majority of 280 seats in the House of Commons. Winston, who had now been without a ministry for six years, hoped that he might be offered a place in Baldwin/’s government.
For almost a week he waited for a telephone call offering him a position, but none came. Winston was deeply disappointed, but he misinterpreted Baldwin’s motives. Far from wanting to keep Winston away from government, Baldwin sensed the threatening turn of events and believed that Winston was destined for a much more distinguished future.
Baldwin on Winston’s Future
“I feel we should not give him a post at this stage,” Baldwin wrote “…if there is going to be a war – and no one can say that there is not – we must keep him fresh to be our war Prime Minister.”
Baldwin’s words were prophetic, but for the moment, Winston was still the outsider and a thorn in the government’s flesh.
- Kershaw, Ian: Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw (London, UK: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010) ISBN-10: 0393337618/ISBN-13: 978-0393337617
- Haining, Peter: The Day War Broke Out: 3rd September 1939 by Peter Haining (London UK: W.H. Allen / Virgin Books, 1989) ISBN-10: 1852270365/ISBN-13: 978-1852270360