THE SECOND WORLD WAR May 1940
On the 1st May 1940 the Allied commanders decided to withdraw from Norway all British and French troops, after they were overrun by the German army. On the 24th May 1940 the Allied command approved Operation Alphabet which was the codename for the retreat from Norway. The Allied retreat was covered by Norwegian forces, who then demobilised to avoid its soldiers being taken prisoner by the Germans. All Allied troops were evacuated by the 8th June 1940 and Norway capitulated to the Germans on the 10th June 1940.
In Britain Neville Chamberlain’s Conservative-dominated National Government was criticised regarding the progress of the Norwegian Campaign during the parliamentary debate of the 7th/8th May 1940. The opposition forced a “vote of no confidence” which the government won with a greatly reduced majority, but support for Chamberlain in his own party was crumbling. Chamberlain failed to reach an agreement with the Labour and Liberal parties over an all-party coalition. On the 10th May 1940 Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill succeeded him as Prime Minister. One of the first things Churchill did on the 11th May 1940, was to ask King George VI for his consent to send an RAF plane to Doorn in Holland to bring Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife to safety in England, to which the King agreed. The eighty-one year old Kaiser had been in exile at Doorn since the end of the Great War. The Kaiser declined the offer stating he did not wish the leave Dutch in the lurch and also give Churchill a propaganda victory. The phrase “blood, sweat, toil and tears” was Churchill’s first speech on the 13th May 1940 to the House of Commons since becoming Prime Minster. In this speech he asked the House to declare its confidence in his government and the motion was passed unanimously. This was the first of three which he gave during the Battle of France, which had commenced on the 10th May 1940.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the British Parliament had passed the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, under which all men between the ages of 18 and 41 were liable for conscription. The registration of all men in the different age groups began in October 1939 for those aged 20 to 23. On the 9th May 1940, registration had extended to men up to 27 but did not reach those aged 40 until June 1941. By the end of 1939 over one and a half million British men had been recruited into the armed forces.
Germany began the invasion of the low-countries and France on the 10th May 1940. France and Britain expected the attack to come through Holland and Belgium. The Battle of Hannut in Belgium was an indecisive action between the German and the Belgian/French armies on the 12th to 14th May 1940. It was the largest tank battle of the campaign. The German main attack, on the 13th May 1940 however, was further south through the Ardennes Forest. German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes then along the Somme valley. In doing so they cut off and surrounded the Allied units that had advanced into Belgium to meet the expected German invasion. The Allied armies were pushed back to the sea. As part of the Battle for France, The Battles for The Hague and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, began on the same day. Queen Wilhelmina established a government-in-exile based in London on the 13th May 1940. While initial resistance by the Dutch was successful, the Dutch commander was forced to surrender, on the 14th May 1940 because of major setbacks on other fronts. On the 18th May 1940 the Germans won the Battle of Zeeland. In the meantime, the Dutch forces had held out and defeated the Germans at the Battle of Afsluitdijk on the 14th May 1940 and only capitulated when the Dutch Army surrendered to the Germans on the 15th May 1940.
In Belgium, the Germans entered Brussels on the 17th May 1940 and captured Antwerp on the 18th May 1940. After the invasion of the Low Countries the Belgian government, led by Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot fled first to Bordeaux in France on the 16th May 1940, then on to London. Whilst in London the government established itself as the only legitimate representation of Belgium to the Allies. During the Battle of the Lys on the 25th to 28th May 1940, German troops deliberately murdered between 86 to 140 civilians. This massacre was a war crime retaliation for the Belgian army’s resistance in the village of Vinkt near Ghent. Belgian gold reserves were evacuated to Britain on the 26th May 1940 on the Belgian patrol vessel A4. The vessel was a small Mersey-class naval trawler operated by Belgium. The gold reserves arrived in Plymouth, and the operation allowed the Belgian government-in-exile to fund its operations but also deprived the German occupiers of an important asset to support their war effort. Belgium surrendered to Germany on the 28th May 1940 and were under occupation almost until the end of the war.
In the Battle for France, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Paris on the 16th May 1940 where he was told by the French government that the French war was all but over. On the 17th May 1940, Paul Raynaud formed a new French government and appointed Maxima Weygand as commander of French Armed Forces on the 18th May 1940. Amiens was besieged by the Germans on the 19TH May 1940 and German Panzers capture Abbeville 20th May 1940. Boulogne-sur- Mer and Calais surrendered to the Germans on the 25th and 26th May 1940 respectively. By the 25th May 1940 British and French troops retreated to Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk began on the 26th May 1940.
The British invasion of Iceland, code named Operation Fort, commenced on the 10th May 1940. The invasion was carried out by the Royal Navy and the Royal marines, because the British government feared the island would be used by the Germans to assist them going into the Atlantic Ocean. The Icelandic government issued a protest stating their neutrality had been violated and their independence infringed. The invasion ended on the 19th May 1940 after British troops had arrested all German citizens and secured all landing areas against the possibility of a German counterattack
0n the 14th May 1940, while preparing to fly to Paris, Churchill drafted a letter to American President Franklin D. Roosevelt hinting that France might soon fall but that Britain would fight on alone. He requested that America assist Britain with everything to enable the British to continue the struggle. The only exception being the United States would not engage the Germans. He pointed out that should Britain fail in the struggle against Germany, then the Nazified “United States of Europe” would turn its attention to America, who would then have to face them alone. Roosevelt replied he would need to consult with congress for their approval, but was faced with opposition from the isolationist contingent not to get involved in a European war again. However, Roosevelt did discuss with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King the possibility of the eventual arrival of the Royal Navy into the United States and Canadian ports should Britain capitulate.
The British government made an urgent radio appeal also on the 14th May 1940 to all men aged between 17 and 65, who were not already in uniform, to become part-time soldiers. After the German attack on Belgium and the Netherlands and British troops in mainland Europe having been forced to retreat to the Channel Ports, many people thought an invasion of Britain would occur. Within 24 hours of the radio broadcast nearly a quarter of a million men applied and the creation of the Local Defence Volunteer service became a reality. Many of these men were employed full time in their profession as part of the war effort. The Home Guard as they were later called, when trained, defended thousands of miles of the British coastline. They also defended key targets such as docks, factories and explosive stores. They patrolled likely invasion sites at night in order to slow down any potential German advance until the army arrived. The expected German never took place and the main role of the Home Guard was capturing German airmen whose aircraft had been shot down over Britain.
Sir Oswald Mosley, a politician, .was jailed on the 23rd May 1940 for his fascist policies. After the Great War Mosley became a Member of Parliament during the 1920s and in the 1930s became leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). At the outbreak of war Mosley led a campaign for a negotiated peace, but after the invasion of Norway overall public opinion turned to hostility owing to his sympathies towards Germany. When he was imprisoned the BUF was banned.
Winston Churchill was victorious in winning the vote to continue the war on the 30th May 1940. The War Cabinet consisted of Churchill, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Labour leader Clement Atlee and Labour deputy leader Arthur Greenwood. The debate hinged whether Mussolini’s Italy should be asked to mediate a peace deal with Nazi Germany. At this stage Italy had not entered into the war, although it was an ally of Germany. Halifax argued for a truce but Churchill believed that Britain should go down fighting, mainly because he did not trust Germany to respect any peace terms. He effectively ended Halifax’s campaign with his famous speech, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the earth”. For Churchill this was his first victory of his war-time premiership, and possibly his most important.
Following the Great War the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia became independent from Russian domination. On the 25th May 1940 the Soviet Union was preparing for a complete takeover of the three states. The proposed takeover was organised with staged conflicts between the Baltic States and the U.S.S.R. when the Soviet government accused Lithuania of kidnapping Soviet soldiers.
On the 31st May 1940 the Imperial branches of the Japanese Army Air Service and Navy Air Service began a two day terror bombing operation on the Chinese provisional capital of Chungking on the upper Yangtze River. The attack was authorised by the Imperial General Headquarters in Japan, mainly against residential and non-military targets as part of the planned Sichuan Invasion.