Review: Six Minutes in May; How Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister by Nicholas Shakespeare (2017) Assessment 9 out of 10

Superb, both an impeccably researched history and a page-turning thriller.

British intervention in Norway in 1940 was a shambles, its targets unclear, the country’s geography misunderstood. Army and Navy officers were at odds. Troops arrived without equipment or air support.

The Navy’s success in capturing the Altmark and freeing its British prisoners awakened German interest in Scandinavia. Hitler deferred his attack in the West in order to occupy Denmark and Norway. The occupation was everything the British intervention was not, well planned and directed, using battle hardened forces, who were properly equipped and provided with aerial superiority.

The “Norway Debate” followed. The book captures the Commons as theatre, speakers affecting the Chamber’s mood and voting intentions. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was blamed for the debacle, his performance in the House poor. The irony was that the government minister with clear responsibility for what went wrong in Norway wasn’t Chamberlain but Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty.

The “Six Minutes in May” was the time taken for MPs to go through the voting Division. The government of Conservatives and National Liberals had a theoretical majority of 213. In the Division over Norway it was reduced to 81. Chamberlain was fatally damaged. Hitler’s thrust in the West invading Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which started on the morning after the Division, was clearly timed to follow the Norway Debate.

In these circumstances, Chamberlain was reluctant to resign as PM. He was prepared to do so in favour of Lord Halifax, the foxhunting, Anglo-Catholic Foreign Secretary and former Viceroy of India. Halifax’s appointment was preferred by the King and most of the press and Conservative Party. In a key chapter, Shakespeare suggests why Halifax turned down the opportunity to become PM.

Churchill walking in Westminster with Lord Halifax

The Labour Party was asked to join a government of national unity, but wouldn’t act under Chamberlain, leaving the only choice, appointment of Churchill as PM, despite his considerable unpopularity amongst both Conservatives and Labour, and his past failures, including that in Norway.

You are left sympathising with ,those who were reluctant to see Churchill as PM and with Halifax for not becoming PM. Above all you left admiring Chamberlain. He tried to avoid war, but then accelerated defence spending, in particular on the Spitfire and Hurricane. After resigning as PM and until his death from stomach cancer in November 1940, he remained in the government and leader of the Conservative Party, providing significant support for Churchill.

Could I also take the Opportunity to praise a Norwegian language Film , ( in translation) ” The King’s Choices”?

It could have been a play, apart from the scenes of the snow covered Norwegian landscape. It portrays King Haakon of Norway and his only son, the heir-presumptive Crown-Prince Olaf. It shows them personally endangered, surrounded by fewer and fewer staff and supporters.

Their choice is to fight on, after the German invasion of Norway, by fleeing to Britain. The Film therefore exactly mirrors, and describes events, at exactly the same time as, those portrayed in “Six Minutes in May”.

Both describe that truism of business and politics that, ultimately, it is all about the decisions we make. I therefore recommend reading the Book and watching the Film. They portray leadership, heroes and decision making, they balance each other.

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