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.
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.