May 1940: Churchill prevents German victory thanks to Critical Thinking

It is the time of year when we commemorate the end of the Second World War. An appropriate moment therefore, to look back at the moment when Winston Churchill had to take one of the most difficult decisions in world history: to fight the strong German army, or to make peace with Hitler, thereby securing the lives of 340,000 British soldiers at the beaches of Dunkirk? A situation in which Critical Thinking proved to be essential in decision making.

On May 10, 1940 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned under the pressure of the Labour party in favour of Winston Churchill. On the same day, German troops invaded France, Netherlands and Belgium. Just ten days later, the first German forces reached the Channel coast, thereby creating the possibility to prepare an invasion on British soil. At the same time, about 340,000 retreating British soldiers were trapped at the beaches of Dunkirk, their lives being seriously threatened by the German Luftwaffe and the approaching land forces.

Churchill appointed four other members to his War Cabinet: Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax of the Conservative Party and two leaders of the Labour Party. On May 25, the War Cabinet was warned by the British intelligence for a possible German attack. Halifax met with the still-neutral Italian ambassador in London and discussed a possible mediation role for Italy between Germany and the Allies. Three days of intense discussions within War Cabinet followed, in which Halifax threatened Chamberlain and himself would resign – and thereby also force Churchill to resign because of lack of Conservative support – if Churchill wouldn’t agree considering a peace treaty. Churchill ended the crisis thanks to a passionate speech to the 25-member Outer Cabinet and convinced its members that Britain must keep on fighting Hitler.

How can this situation be analysed by the use of the RED-model?

–   Recognise Assumptions: Churchill didn’t believe that the United Kingdom would be better off if the country would accept terms from Hitler instead of fighting until the end. He also thought that the 340,000 soldiers in Dunkirk could be saved and also – likely – believed that Halifax’s influence on the other Conservative politicians was overestimated.

–   Evaluate Arguments: Churchill realised that a peace treaty would most likely include German control of air and navy bases and a government consisting of fascist politicians, while the Germans wouldn’t suffer any losses to their military forces. Briefings with Vice Admiral Ramsay provided Churchill with enough evidence for a possible successful evacuation of the Dunkirk soldiers. He also knew that he could outmaneuver Halifax by moving the discussion out from the small War Cabinet into the large Outer Cabinet.

–   Draw Conclusions: Churchill concluded that there was enough ground to refuse peace talks, but that he had to involve the members of the Outer Cabinet and the public.

What can we learn from this? First of all, it is important – even under great pressure – to weigh up all possible arguments carefully, and not to rely on a first suggestion or advice from someone else. When weighing these arguments, it is important to collect as much evidence as possible to separate facts from assumptions. When drawing conclusions, bear in mind other forces or influences that can strengthen their impact.

Would you like to know more about Critical Thinking and the Watson Glaser test? Then sign up (free of charge) for the next webinar “Critical Thinking: The 21st Century Skill”