Yesterday I derogated UN Resolution 1701 by reference to the Munich Agreement, which allowed hopes of peace to continue for months rather than days after September 1938. Historian John Steele Gordon wrote to chide me for failing to note that England used the year to rearm before war broke out. Several readers wrote asking me not to leave that as the final word. I asked Mr. Gordon to take a look at volume 2 of William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, where he briefly addresses this argument (page 381), quoting Churchill’s own reflections on it in the “Munich Winter” chapter of The Gathering Storm. Manchester observes that Chamberlain refused to increase the Army budget after Munich, citing reasons of economy; he refused to institute conscription; he refused to approve the goal of achieving air parity with German. Though England incresed its air squadrons from five to forty-seven, and increased it antiaircraft air batteries, Manchester writes:
In every other category–artillery, tanks, and equipped divisions–Nazi gains were overwhelming…The number of Nazi divisions jumped from seven to fifty-one…
Mr. Gordon responded:
I have no doubt whatever, especially in the light of hindsight, that Chamberlain should have rearmed with far more vigor then he did. There are good reasons there are no statues of Chamberlain. But prime ministers always face multiple pressures and demands on the Treasury. And Germany certainly became relatively stronger in this year, thanks largely, as Manchester says, to the ever-stronger Wehrmacht.
But the Wehrmacht was not Britain’s biggest problem (it would, of course, be France’s). The biggest problem was air power. The Royal Navy vastly out gunned the German navy, and no invasion was possible as long as the Navy controlled the sea. (As Lord St. Vincent famously said about Napoleon, “I did not say he cannot come; I only say he cannot come by sea.”). But by the 1930’s control of the sea was not possible without control of the air above it, and here Britain was far, far weaker than Germany. Had Hitler gained control of the air over the Channel for even a couple of days, he could have put an army on British shores and then Britain, with its weak army, would have been doomed. Southeast England, after all, is a defensive nightmare even with a strong army. British defense doctrine has always been to control the Channel above all else. It’s done a pretty good job of that since 1066.
So the growth of the Royal Air Force in these months, growing from 5 to 47 squadrons as Manchester states, was crucial. Britain could not have survived otherwise….
Manchester’s biogrpahy of Churchill, while not hagiographic, tends to look at the world through Churchillian eyes (as does everybody else, to be sure, as Churchill saw to that, quite deliberately, with his six-volume The Second World War that won a Nobel Prize) and makes Churchill look as prescient and wise as the facts will allow.
Britain could well have lost the war that began in 1939. Fortunately as someone said, “Hitler was a good general–for a corporal.” But it almost certainly would have lost the war had it begun in the fall of 1938.
What’s wrong with this? I think it considers England as the only variable in the equation, while ignoring both Czechoslovakia and France (as well as Poland). Churchill himself notes in the “Munich Winter” chapter of The Gathering Storm:
The subjugation of Czechosloviakia robbed the Allies of the Czech Army of twenty-one regular divisions, fifteen or sixteen second-line divisions already mobilised, and also their mountain fortress line which, in the days of Munich, had required the deployment of thirty German divisions, or the main strength of the mobile and fully trained German Army…We certainly suffered a loss through the fall of Czechoslovakia equivalent to some thirty-five divisions. Besides this the Skoda Works, the second most important arsenal in Central Europe, was made to change sides adversely…
Even more disastrous was the alteration in the relative strength of the French and German Armies. With every month that passed, from 1938 onwards the German Army was not only increased in numbers and formations, and in the accumulation of reserves, but in quality and maturity…
Churchill then takes account of the “vital sphere” of air power and air defense in which Britian had improved its own position following Munich, but concludes:
Finally there is this staggering fact: that in the single year 1938, Hitler had annexed to the Reich, and brought under his absolute rule 6,750,000 Austrians and 3,500,000 Sudetens, a total of over ten million subjects, toilers and soldiers. Indeed the dread balance had turned in [Hitler’s] favor.
Churchill’s judgment finds substantial support in the concluding chapter of Telford Taylor’s Munich: The Price of Peace. Though Taylor is highly sympathetic to those who preferred to put off the day of reckoning with Nazi Germany, he states, for example, that if war had come in 1938:
[O]ne can safely say that that the possibility of establishing an allied front in France that would hold would have been far better than it was when the war actually began–both because France and especially Britain would have had more time to strengthen the front, and because Germany could not have denuded her eastern frontiers and concentrated virtually all her forces in the west, as she was able to do after the Nazi-Soviet pact and the destruction of Poland.
The variables that must be taken into account of course make it difficult to reach any conclusion with absolute certainty. In contemplating “the tragedy of Munich,” Churchill himself reflected on the necessity of statesmanship and the call of honor:
If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used. And if this be so, it should be used under the conditions which are most favourable. There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win. These are the tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout its history been so frequently impaled. Final judgment upon them can only be recorded by history in relation to the facts of the case as known to the parties at the time, and also as subsequently proved.
There is, however, one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations [Churchill is referring to France’s obligations to Czechoslovakia]. This guide is called honour. It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics…Here  the moment came when Honour pointed the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at the time would have reinforced its dictates.
On this score I give Churchill the last word.