Cameron’s 1940 double-fault: we were neither a junior partner nor ‘alone’

David Cameron dropped a memorable clanger in Washington, saying the UK was the “junior partner” in the World War II fight against Germany in 1940 – and then dropped another one trying to correct the first.  He was speaking on 22 July 2010, the second day of his first trip to the US as prime minister:

“I think it is important in life to speak as it is and the fact is that we are a very effective partner of the US but we are the junior partner.  We were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis.”

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Miliband, commented that “We were not a junior partner. We stood alone against the Nazis.”  The prime minister was predictably challenged on his ‘gaffe’ after his return to the UK, and replied:  “There was no senior partner. We were on our own in 1940. What I meant to say was that I was referring to the 1940s, not 1940. You are absolutely right and I was absolutely wrong.”

But the correction itself required correction.  A letter from a Professor Richard Clogg in the Guardian of 11 August pointed out that Britain had not been ‘alone’ in 1940, as both Messrs Miliband and Cameron had asserted:  the Greeks were engaged in fighting the Italians, long before the US entered the war.

This in turn stirred J. (the historian of the family) to send the following letter to the Guardian, which published a slightly abridged version of it on the 13th:

It wasn’t only Greece that Mr Cameron forgot when he spoke of Britain standing alone in 1940 (Professor Richard Clogg, letters 11 August). As Winston Churchill said in June 1940:  “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

It was indeed Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and hundreds of thousands of troops from British Colonies who stood with Britain in 1939 and 1940.  And we should not forget Poles and Czechs flying in disproportionate numbers in the Battle of Britain and, like other Free Forces from Occupied Europe, fighting in all theatres of conflict from September 1939 until 1945.

British politicians of this generation have forgotten a lot. On one of his US visits, Tony Blair praised the United States as standing with us in the blitz.   I was bombed out in the blitz, fifteen months before the US entered the War: I wrote to Number 10 to put  Mr Blair right about this but did not receive a reply.

Jane Barder

This in turn prompted the following reaction in a private message from an old New Zealand friend and distinguished former national and international public servant:

The New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage said on the outbreak of war in September 1939: “Both with gratitude for the past, and with confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand.” Then we sent off all thirty of our Wellington bombers, fully crewed, to Britain and subsequently hundreds of trained aircrew to join the RAF. Not many got back. The first fighter ace of the War was a Kiwi, the head of Bomber Command also. Of course it was you Brits who took the daily pounding from the Luftwaffe so you alone take the credit for surviving that.

If you have the opportunity, add the Indians to your “honour list”—they were very much present in the Western Desert and Italy, as well as Burma.

I loved your pulling up Blair too. Reminded me of a session with Foreign Affairs luminaries in Washington in the middle of our nasty tussle with the Americans over our non-nuclear policy when an admiral accused us of “not pulling our weight “. My colleague, a feisty journalist, told him acidly that by the time the US got involved in the First World War her great uncle had died in Flanders and by the time they got involved in the Second her uncle had died in the Libyan Desert: “don’t talk to me about not pulling our weight,” she snarled at the speechless admiral.

I am in a pro-Brit phase at the moment because I am halfway thru the first volume of Churchill’s History of the English-speaking Peoples and hugely enjoying it. We trained historians may have some questions about his verification of the occasional myth but we cannot match his gift for capturing in a few words the sweep of history and the ultimate significance of this or that era or incident or individual.

I may even end up partially forgiving him for sending our troops on forlorn expeditions like Gallipoli (WW1), Greece and Crete (WW2), though most Kiwis of our generation would not necessarily be with me on that.

J. replied gratefully:

I was including Indians in ‘troops from British colonies’, although it is difficult to think of India ever being a colony!  Three thousand Indian troops were killed in the Battle of Keren, a decisive event in the liberation of Ethiopia.  The Italian commander surrendered in May 1941 while the Soviets were still allied with the Germans and while the USA was still sitting it out.  In addition to the splendid Indian Army (including many subsequent Pakistanis) there were equally valiant though not as numerous troops from East and West Africa and the West Indies.

When the United States did eventually enter the war as our ‘senior partner’, to the huge relief of the Allies who had been at war for more than two years already, it was not exclusively prompted by a gallant impulse to defeat Nazi and Japanese fascism and rescue the world for democracy, as has sometimes been suggested subsequently.  The US had little choice in the matter once Japan had attacked the US Pacific Fleet and naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, “a date that will live in infamy“: and even then it was left to Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy promptly to declare war on the United States, not the other way round.

David Cameron was a star pupil of Professor Vernon Bogdanor when reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford.  At Eton he had gained three As at A-level, in history, history of art and economics with politics.  Pity he didn’t keep up his history when he opted for full-time politics.


7 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    If Cameron could get an A at A-level in history, be considered a star student at PPE (is not the recent history of the 1940s somewhat pertinent to politics.. or have I misunderstood everything?) and yet blunder that grossly not once, but twice, then surely there is something rotten in the teaching (and appraising) of history and politics in the UK?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. It might, I suppose, be argued that it’s the teaching at Eton and Oxford which has been found wanting in this star pupil’s double blunders, not UK teaching in general. Indeed the teaching of history in our state schools is often criticised for its obsession with Nazism and the second world war in general, and the Holocaust in particular. Perhaps our prime minister would have got his facts about 1940 right if he had been educated at a state comprehensive school?

  2. Pete Kercher says:

    Possibly, Brian, but then I dare say he would have blundered about 1776 or something else. The real problem is not so much one of the period that is covered by history teaching (and I agree that any excessive emphasis on any one period is more or less bound to distort students’ understanding of history, however important it be that one particular experience be drummed into them), but the importance that is attributed to history per se. While the better British bookshops have no shortage of books about history, I suspect that this indicates a propensity to self-education rather than the continuation of any real interest planted in young people during their studies. The impression I am given by young relatives attending school in the UK is that history is boring and badly taught, tout court. I seem to recall that the previous UK government also had some hairbrained idea about downgrading what little of it is left, or does my memory betray me?

    Brian writes: Thanks again, Pete. I agree entirely with everything you say, but I’m afraid I can’t answer your concluding question: perhaps others will do so? J. and I have a vague recollection of the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts being invited (by the Tory/LibDem government? by Labour before the election?) to draw up a new history syllabus for state secondary schools, but on what basis and whether this is going to happen, neither of us knows.
    PS: Now however please see

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Let us not forget, when we criticize the USA for not coming in sooner, that Roosevelt was walking a tightrope during 1940-41, giving as much assistance as possible in the western North Atlantic (American warships were sunk by torpedo, and many lives lost) without actually declaring war.  He had to content with a massive and influential isolationist block in and out of Congress which saw no point in intervening in a second European war.  Roosevelt and a few others like him realised that if Britain went under or was forced into a compromise peace, and Hitler then eliminated Russia with the full force of the Wehrmacht, America would have to confront both the Japanese and the Germans on her own, but he could not make most Americans see it. 
    It is a mystery to me why the time and place of the Japanese first strike came as such a shock to America, since war with the Japanese had been coming closer for years on account of Japan’s need for oil, rubber, and metals to maintain her drive towards the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.  Moreover the Japs were well aware of the successful British operation at Taranto; aware, too, of American naval exercises a few years earlier, when aircraft from the Lexington and Saratoga were adjudged have inflicted severe damage at Pearl Harbor.  A Far Eastern war was foreseen several years before by the Admiralty, who seem to have been reluctant to use force to stop Italian troop movements to Abyssinia not because they reckoned the Italian fleet was too formidable but because we would inevitably have lost major vessels which would have been badly needed in the shooting war against Japan, expected at that time (1936?) to begin in 1940.  I am quoting from memory the distinguished American naval historian Arthur Marder.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. You make some very fair points. But in the end a country has to be judged by what it does, not by what its leaders would have liked to do if circumstances had been different. It’s not unreasonable occasionally to put into perspective the seductive myth according to which the US cavalry gallantly rode to the rescue of the feckless Europeans when for the second time in a couple of decades they had shown themselves too incompetent to defend themselves. How many perfectly decent Americans believe as an article of faith that World War Two began at the tail-end of 1941? And Mr Cameron seemed to be under the impression, until corrected, that the US entered the war on 3 September 1939!

  4. John Miles says:

    In all this argy bargy one shouldn’t altogether forget that the senior partner in the 1940s was arguably Russia.

    Brian writes: Not, I think, during the nearly two years in the 1940s during which the Soviet Union was in alliance with Hitler Germany, joining Hitler in his aggression against Poland (a few months before the start of the 1940s) in order to help itself to a sizeable slab of that unfortunately situated country.

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    How many perfectly decent Americans believe as an article of faith that World War Two began at the tail-end of 1941?   Brian, the vast majority of them!  Their knowledge of world history, or even of US history, matches their knowledge of geography, if the evidence of mass surveys in recent years is to be believed.  Perhaps it comes of living in a huge country which has everything a citizen could (or, some say, should) want and where ‘abroad’ is far away.  Not that we Brits all shine at history and geography, either!

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tim. The rider that you add at the end is, I’m afraid, a very necessary one. Even the star scholar Mr Cameron failed twice to get full marks in history recently!

  6. Tim says:

    It is surely a piece of national ego-centricity to decide that WWII began the day we declared war on Germany. The Chinese had been fighting the Japanese for three years by then. Up until Pearl Harbour there were two unconnected wars one in the Far East and one in Europe/North Africa. There is a sustainable argument that WWII as a genuinely global conflict did indeed begin with Pearl Harbour.
    And it is not as if we actually did much in 1939: the Poles were persuaded not to mobilise fully in 1939, in order not to give Hitler an excuse to attack; but on the basis that if they could hold out for three weeks the UK and France would come to their aid. In the end we sat back and waited for Germany to attack us (in practice pretty much what Roosevelt did – we were just closer to Hitler). The real mystery is why Hitler declared war on the US, which made Roosevelt’s political task so much easier, and made it possible for him to concentrate US forces on the European war rather than the Pacific.
    Beside the point a bit, but I think the reason we gave the Italians a free hand in Abyssinia (including allowing them to ship poison gas through the Suez Canal) was because at that point we still hoped to split Mussolini away from Hitler.
    Brian writes: Thank you for this. It occurred to me as I wrote it that it could be argued that for the Americans the war did begin with Pearl Harbor. But unlike the war between Japan and China, the war which the US was brought into by Hitler and Mussolini was indeed the war which began either with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 or else with the British and French declarations of war against Germany on the 3rd. At any rate the underlying point seems indisputable: that few Americans now appreciate that when their country entered the war in December 1941, their European allies had been at war with Germany for more than two years.

    I accept your point that we did precious little about fighting the Germans or defending the Poles for a considerable time after we had declared war, and the Poles waited in vain for us to honour our promise to come to their aid. When I served in Warsaw I used to spend a lot of time warning British visitors not to boast to their Polish hosts that Poland had a special place in their hearts because we had come to their rescue in 1939. Numerous visitors incautiously tried to make this point to the Poles, and tended to receive a well-deserved dusty reply.

    However, I don’t agree that what we did was pretty well the same as what Roosevelt did. We didn’t have to issue our ultimatum to Hitler when he invaded Poland, and when Hitler failed to act as we had demanded — not very surprisingly! — it was we who declared war on Germany, not vice versa. There were powerful voices in Britain urging that we should negotiate a pact with Hitler under which we would fight Soviet Bolshevism together, with Hitler allowing us to keep the British Empire in return. Declaring war and demanding Germany’s unconditional surrender — almost a joke in the circumstances — was not the only or the easiest option. It’s open to question whether if Hitler had not declared war on the US after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt would have felt it politically possible for the US to declare war on Germany. Many Americans would have pressed for the US to concentrate on avenging Pearl Harbor by fighting Japan and not being distracted by involvement in a European war at the same time. It was our great good fortune that when Hitler took that decision for him, Roosevelt consented to give priority to the war in Europe, in spite of Pearl Harbor.

  7. John Miles says:

    You’re quite right of course, but during the time you mention the Americans weren’t in the war either.

    Brian writes: Um….