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Six Minutes in May/ Nicholas Shakespeare

This is an account of how Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940.

It begins with a detailed account of the Norway Campaign. The assault on Narvik which produced iron ore for Germany was Churchill’s brainchild as First Sea Lord.

It was a disastrous campaign comparable to Gallipoli and Churchill’s career was lucky to survive it let alone become PM as result of it.

The landing force of soldiers was woefully ill-equipped for arctic conditions, there was no air cover, the navy failed to act in concert with the army, there were so many operations (Wilfred, Maurice, Sickle) that I lost count though by contrast the Nazis had just the one.

The writer argues that Churchill was more exercised by Narvik as opposed to the bigger more strategic port of Trondheim as his nephew Giles Romilly a Times reporter was held prisoner in Narvik.

Shakespeare then switches to Parliament for the Norway debate which led to Neville Chamberlain’s resignation.

Edward Halifax was the popular choice to replace him. He was preferred by the Conservative party and the Royal Family but he baulked as he was in the House of Lords (not necessarily a bar as Alec Douglas Home found out 23 years later) and did not fancy working with Churchill.

Shakespeare adds another motive.

Halifax had an intimate relationship with Baba Metcalfe (no one can be sure if it was sexual) but certainly the correspondence between them was more than affectionate. He was still married. Would he prefer to stay low profile ? He also argued that if you look at Halifax’s career trajectory his initial stance was rejection of office then persuasion to accept it.

The parliamentary debate makes for gripping reading. One of the features of the key personalites except Churchill was how much more interested they were in their pastimes than in politics. Halifax was a passionate Master of Hounds, Chamberlain a fisherman and Leo Amery a mountain climber.

All in all, this is an absorbing well-researched account.

It might be best read alongside John Lukacs’ Five Days in London – May 1940 which covers the next stage in particular the pressure on Churchill (once PM) to sue for peace after another disaster at Dunkirk.

My only critique is the poor quality of maps and photographs being too small and furry in my Kindle edition.

About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts