Over on Peter Hitchens' blog there has been an interesting discussion about Dunkirk.
Some people, including Mr. Hitchens (as I understand it) have suggested that Britain's guarantee to support Poland and our declaration of war was both unnecessary and damaging - and that if we had not given this guarantee we may have stayed out of the war and held on to our Empire.
Although I agree that our offer of support to Poland was useless from any practical point of view, I do not agree that it would have made any difference to the way the war was to pan out.
First of all, a lot of people seem to think that had we not gone to war over Poland then Hitler would never have invaded western Europe. They seem to think that the war was always going to be between Germany and the Soviet Union.
This is nonsense. Hitler's motivation leading up to the war was to erase the ignominy Germany had suffered at Versailles. That is what reclaiming the Rhineland was about, that was what invading Czechoslovakia was about and that was what invading Poland was about.
British intelligence were already aware at the outbreak of war that the next target for Germany was an invasion of western Europe to begin in November 1939 and the defeat and humiliation of France. This would be the ultimate prize for Hitler to make up for Versailles and was not only central to his plan for a "United Europe", but essential to his personal ambition.
In other words, we were always going to be dragged into the war regardless of whether we declared war in September 1939 or not. If things had gone to schedule then there would have been no "Phoney War", the BEF would have still gone out to France, would still have been kicked out at Dunkirk only we'd have been trying to extract them from the beaches in the middle of a harsh winter rather than a dull early summer.
As it happens, the November invasion was postponed due to bad weather - but it is possible that our support for Poland gave those people the spirit to fight on for more than a month when their defeat was predicted in 2-3 weeks. Had they not held on then the invasion of western Europe may have begun earlier and the above scenario played out. I doubt that we could have used the "little ships" to assist in getting 30,000 men off the winter beaches of Dunkirk let alone 300,000 and Britain would have been in a far worse predicament than we eventually were.
And let's not forget that at this time, the Soviet Union were our enemy, Germany's ally and were supplying the Nazis with the oil with which they would launch their invasion of France and the low countries.
There was never going to be just a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Western Europe was always the principle goal and the defeat and humiliation of France the prize for Hitler. Had we not declared war in September 1939 we would stil have declared war in May 1940 and it is only through luck that we weren't at war sooner than we wanted and even more unprepared than we eventually were.
There was never any chance that Britain could have stayed out of the war and our guarantee to Poland made no significant difference whatsoever.
What did make a difference and is severely under rated by modern historians is the North Africa campaign. When the allies finally kicked the Nazis out of North Africa they took over a quarter of a million of Germany's most experienced troops prisoner - three times as many as were captured at Stalingrad - while the Germans suffered more casualties and lost more tanks and planes in North Africa than they did at Stalingrad too. This massive loss of men and materiel was crucial to the outcome of the war - every bit as important as Stalingrad.
And while all this was going on, we were also fighting the Japanese in the Far East - so we would still have lost our Empire regardless. Far from being an "unnecessary" war, WW2 was unavoidable for Britain. There were disasters, defeats and humiliations - but we also have much to be proud of too. Not least that - when the rest of the world thought we were defeated - we stood and fought against the evil of fascism.
That we ultimately failed Poland was shameful - but not our fault. Churchill pushed for free elections for Poland and insisted that Britain could not be content with a situation that didn't leave Poland as a free and independent state. It was Roosevelt who sold Poland out - not Churchill or Britain.