War History online proudly presents this Guest Piece from Brian Lavery
Garry Oldman has recently won a Golden Globe and just now been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. It is a classic film and no doubt it will win many awards. Oldman is one of the best Churchills I have ever seen, and the list of actors who have played him includes greats such as Albert Finney and Robert Hardy.
The film gives a realistic picture of his family life and his relationships with staff and typists. His wife’s talk to him on being too rude to people was actually contained in a letter, which she tore up then stuck together before giving it to him, and it was actually done after he became prime minister. But I suppose that is normal artistic license. Oldman’s moving performance culminates in the famous ‘Fight them on the beaches’ speech in which Churchill wins over his own party in the House of Commons – it is quite true that the Conservatives resisted his appointment and he was mainly supported by Labour in the early stages of his premiership.
My biggest problem is with the London Underground scene, which of course never happened. For one thing, it must have been one of the slowest trains ever, stations in Central London are never more than two minutes apart. But more important, Churchill already had a measure of public opinion. On 20 May as the German armies were still rolling through France, his friend Anthony Eden broadcast on the radio, calling for men to join a volunteer force to defend the country.
Before he had finished speaking crowds were gathering outside police stations to enlist, finding bewildered constables who had not been told to expect them. During the first 24 hours a quarter of a million registered. By the end of the month that had risen to a million and a half, including my own father. The military value of the force, which Churchill personally named the Home Guard, was rather doubtful, but this was obviously not a nation that was ready to give in to the Nazis.
Dunkirk was important for British morale, but it was not as decisive as the film suggests. The caption at the end implies that the civilian fleet was solely responsible for the rescue. In fact the majority of men were embarked from the harbour, in naval destroyers and other vessels.
As I try to show in my recently-published book Churchill Warrior – How a Military Life Guided Winston’s Finest Hours, the new Prime Minister had a uniquely wide and deep knowledge of all three armed services and their opponents. Even if the British army had been destroyed, he knew that the Germans would have to defeat the Royal Air Force and then the Royal Navy before they could launch an invasion. The Germans had very few landing craft and none that could land tanks under combat conditions.
Perhaps the most threatening plan was put forward by General Student, in charge of the German parachute troops. He wanted to land his men in south-west England and cause chaos among the ill-equipped, demoralised and disorganised troops returning from Dunkirk – but he had been wounded during the action and was not able to press his case. Churchill had the occasional worried night when tidal conditions were ripe for an invasion, but in general he did not believe it to be very likely. Like Dunkirk and the Home Guard, the threat was important in involving the people in the war effort.
Darkest Hour is a film very much worth seeing, but don’t take it all too seriously as history.