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Churchill and the Channel Tunnel
Today: the Channel Tunnel plunges dramatically underground on the English side. (Photograph by Mutzy, Creative Commons)
“A fixed link with the Continent”
During the Brexit debate, much was made of Churchill’s supposed attitude to “Europe.” No one doubts that he strongly encouraged Continental reconciliation and union after 1945. More debatable was whether he was in favor of Britain joining what he called “the United States of Europe.” The conclusive point seems to be his reticence towards joining supra-national institutions. As Prime Minister in 1951-55, he opposed joining the European Coal and Steel Community, predecessor to the European Union. Clearly, Churchill would not have had to pronounce on Brexit, simply because with him there would have been no “Brentry.”
Churchill was an early supporter of a Channel Tunnel, which was first proposed in 1751. For most of his life he joined in lively and almost continuous discussion of “a fixed link with the Continent.” Indeed, during the 1924-29 Conservative government, Churchill was seen as “the leading political advocate of a tunnel.” 1
“I move that the button now be touched”
Churchill’s view was the opposite of his father, Lord Randolph. In June 1888, Winston wrote, his father “practically laughed the Channel Tunnel Bill” out of the House of Commons. In event of invasion, tunnel advocates argued, any minister could, with the touch of a button, blow up the tunnel entrance. Winston wrote:
“Imagine,” exclaimed Lord Randolph, drawing an airy finger along the Treasury bench…. “Fancy the present Cabinet gathered together to decide who should touch the button and when it should be touched.” He had intended to add, “Fancy the Rt. Hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W.H. Smith) rising at length in his place with the words: ‘I move that the button be now touched.’” But the laughter from all parties which this diverting picture had already excited led him to forget the climax he had contemplated. The Bill was rejected by 307 to 165. Few private members [have been] able by their unaided personal force so powerfully to sway the opinion of Parliament. 2
Lord Randolph was a fierce tunnel opponent, his son wrote. As early as 1882 he had been accused of being “a devoted slave of Mr. [Joseph] Chamberlain—apparently on the curious ground that he had voted against a plan for making a Channel Tunnel.” 3 Again in 1889 Lord Randolph vented his opposition. Winston recorded this in his own, pro-tunnel article, thirty years after writing his father’s biography:
Finally, there is the sentimental “island” argument, wittily expressed by Lord Randolph Churchill in his speech against the tunnel which so greatly amused the House of Commons in 1889, that “the reputation of England has hitherto depended upon her being, as it were, virgo intacta.” 4
“Additional strength and not a danger”
If the 1889 Bill was part of the first series of proposals to Parliament 5, it was not the first one. Some authors have even unearthed a project under Louis XV, preceding a better-known one under Napoleon. 6 By the late 1800s, the idea envisioned transport by railway.
One cannot fail to notice, of course, that these plans were associated with the archetypal French enemies of England, tainting them from the start. Why should Churchill, with his sentimental insular predilections, his concern with security, embrace a Channel tunnel?
Churchill was of course too young to participate in the debates of the 1880s and early 1890s, which led nowhere. The military service chiefs were resolutely opposed. A new Channel Tunnel Bill appeared in December 1906. As a junior minister in the Liberal Government, Churchill was not consulted. But First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher (who later served Churchill in that office) opposed a tunnel on security grounds. 7 More generally the whole Committee of Imperial Defence continued to oppose the project, which foundered again in 1907.
It is not known when exactly Churchill began to take a positive interest in the scheme. However, he first appears on record as a tunnel supporter when First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-15). Some two decades later he wrote that he adopted the idea “before the Great War.” He thought a tunnel “would be an additional strength and not a danger to our strategic security.” 8
“I am in favour of it too”
In April 1913, pressured by MPs, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith submitted the question to the Committee of Imperial Defence. Churchill now headed the Admiralty—and Fisher had changed his mind. “I have ever been a firm believer in the Channel Tunnel,” he lied to Churchill on 10 March 1913. On his letter Churchill noted, “I am in favour of it too.” 9
The main dissentient voice came from Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence since 1912. He was to remain the most determined opponent of the scheme, resorting to every conceivable argument against it. A Channel tunnel, Donald Hunt wrote, was one of Hankey’s “most notorious bugbears.” 10 Hankey continued fighting the tunnel until dismissed from all official functions by Churchill in March 1942. Keith Wilson called him “the ‘demon king’ of the affair.” 11
During the protracted exchanges between these high officials, two positive ideas predominated. In wartime, a tunnel would facilitate food supplies in the face of a submarine threat. Secondly, it would speed up the transfer of troops and supplies to British forces fighting the Germans in France. (The menace of a French invasion was no longer considered after the signing of the Entente Cordiale.) What about a German foray through the tunnel after conquering France? To ward off invasion from “another power,” Churchill insisted on precautions on the English side. These included a drawbridge for the railway tracks so that Britain could “command the debouches of the tunnel.” 12
“If in doubt, leave it out.”
On 26 February 1914, Churchill made his views known to the Cabinet in a memorandum. He stressed several vital caveats:
The Admiralty consider it indispensable that a Channel Tunnel should be capable of being flooded or otherwise effectually cut at any time by the Navy through the gunfire or other action of warships without military assistance, even though both ends of the tunnel are in the hands of the enemy. It is for the promoters of the scheme and their engineers to satisfy this vital condition. If they are able to do so, the project offers various important strategic advantages, including a greater assistance for our food supply. If they cannot do so, the Admiralty would be compelled to oppose the scheme. 13
This proved counterproductive since it was easy for people like Hankey to argue that complete safety was not possible. Moreover, proponents could not convince Seeley, the respected former Secretary of State for War, or Lord Kitchener, the Army figure. The Committee of Imperial Defence, fatefully met on 14 July 1914, only a few days before the outbreak of war. Churchill argued his case but the PM acted on a principle which usually governed his conduct: If in doubt leave it out. There was, he said, “no sufficient ground for reversing the decision of the Government in 1907.” French, Churchill and Battenberg “formally recorded their dissent,” while the mercurial Fisher once more changed sides. 14
“A greater sense of security”
The pro-tunnel MPs did not relent. A few weeks before he was ousted in December 1916, Asquith received a deputation of them. So did his successor, Lloyd George, in the last two years of the war. With the Paris Peace Conference in session, on 28 February 1919, Churchill raised the matter in the War Cabinet. France’s demand for a Rhineland frontier was unrealistic, said Churchill, now Secretary of State for War and Air. But the British
should show ourselves as sympathetic as possible to the French, for two reasons: first, in order that she might show herself accommodating in regard to our own Eastern policy; and, second, to enable us to acquire great influence over France and the Peace Conference generally, with a view to the adoption of a merciful policy towards Germany. Incidentally, [WSC] suggested that France might feel a greater sense of security if we would meet her wishes in regard to the construction of the Channel Tunnel. 15
When Lloyd George welcomed another deputation of tunnel advocates, Hankey took fright. He enlisted the support of Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, at the height of his prestige and resolutely against a tunnel. He could also count on two prominent allies, Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Also, like his father, Chancellor of the Exchequer Austen Chamberlain, was against a tunnel.
“It can be demolished and the water let in”
The Prime Minister made his definitive support conditional on unambiguous approval by the Service chiefs. The Admiralty and Churchill’s Air Ministry saw no objections, but the War Office was problematic:
The Director of Military Operations saw a positive military advantage in being able to move troops rapidly to the continent. [But] Sir Henry Wilson…saw problems with being cut off from the tunnel mouth once in France. [The tunnel] would only be useful in an offensive war, rather than one aimed at defending Britain, and that it would entail a decisive military commitment. [Absent that commitment to France and Belgium], the dangers of a tunnel outweighed its advantages. 17
War Minister Churchill now found himself in conflict with his highest official. His handling of the matter was clumsy, but the best he could do against such opposition. 18 It was a contentious debate. Wilson said Churchill’s defensive ideas of flooding or blocking the ventilation shaft minimized the military dangers. He also feared the extent to which a tunnel would commit Britain to a large army in France’s defense. 19 Churchill sent Wilson a handwritten note with a sketch of the ventilation shaft “accessible only by sea.” Even if the enemy held both ends of the tunnel, “it can be demolished and the water let in.” 20
Still, Churchill made “no high-profile stand,” and the discussion quietly subsided again. One historian suggests that this fit “the irregular and personal method of government under Lloyd George’s coalition.” 21
“The risks from the air are a hundredfold greater”
The French and Belgians, having been through Armageddon once, were nervous about the future. They continued to see a Channel tunnel as vital to their future defense. In 1924 Ramsay MacDonald, the new Labour Prime Minister, agreed to re-open the debate. The three Services were duly consulted, and were negative on security grounds. They were backed by all four former Prime Ministers: Balfour, Asquith, Lloyd George and Baldwin. On 1 July, the Cabinet accepted their recommendation. Churchill had lost his Parliamentary seat, but he voiced forceful dissent three days later. Four hundred Members of Parliament favored the tunnel, he wrote. Yet it was vetoed by “five Prime and ex-Prime Ministers….
Quite a record! One spasm of mental concentration enabled these five super-men, who have spent their lives in proving each other incapable and misguided on every other object, to arrive at a unanimous conclusion. There is no doubt about their promptitude. The question is, was their decision right or wrong? I do not hesitate to say it was wrong. 22
* * *
Not for the first time nor the last, Churchill declared the experts wrong. The military was often hostile to innovation; the public was misled by ridiculous invasion scares. As he would later over Appeasement, Churchill condemned “the triumph of prejudice and mental inertia.” The bomber was still in its infancy; yet Churchill foresaw the future. He described it in shockingly prescient terms. His article was utterly predictive of what was to come, and what he would be warning of just ten years later:
Compare the risk [of invasion through the tunnel] with others that we have to face: with the risk of new inventions or developments which would render our battle fleet obsolete; with the discovery of rays which would explode our magazines ashore or afloat. Above all, compare it with the danger from the air. Fancy trying to invade this island through a tiny tube when the whole air is open to a stronger assailant. Compare the risks of London being destroyed by incendiary bombs or poisoned by chemical bombs from the air, with the risks of our not being capable of flooding the tunnel in time and safeguarding our own end of it. The risks from the air are now a hundredfold greater. But we live placidly under them.23
Whatever the public thought of this article it did not move Parliament. Hankey was “confident that the Channel Tunnel had been ‘flooded out’ once and for all.” 24 The fall of the Labour government to the Conservatives and Baldwin in late 1924 did not change the situation. Churchill “re-ratted” to the Tories and became Chancellor of the Exchequer. But he had more pressing economic challenges, and no role in the Backbench Committtee of 400 pro-tunnel MPs. 25
“Straining at the gnat”
Baldwin re-opened the tunnel debate in 1928. Again the Service chiefs and former prime ministers opposed it. After the June 1929 election, Labour held the most seats and Baldwin was replaced by Ramsay MacDonald. A free or “conscience vote” on the issue was allowed on 30 June 1930. It was meaningless, since the Government had announced it would not pursue a tunnel. Many familiar tunnel enemies, like Hankey and MacDonald, campaigned for abandonment. They were joined by Sir Samuel Hoare and Herbert Morrison. Baldwin seemed “even more against the scheme than he had been in 1924.”26
It is not clear why Churchill published another article on the Channel tunnel in February 1936. He did not mention Hitler or Germany by name. But again repeated his warning of the “air menace,” in a magnificently enjoyable analogy:
The danger which modern Britain has to face is not invasion but starvation. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to feed London if the estuary of the Thames were made too dangerous for shipping. We are, in our present air weakness, vulnerable as we have never been before, and as is no other country now. When I think of the dangers to which we are exposed, I marvel at the illogical standard of values of those who dwell complacently under the air menace, and yet would be sincerely alarmed at a Channel tunnel. Indeed, it seems the perfect case of swallowing the camel and straining at the gnat.28
What about a German tunnel?
“Why Not a Channel Tunnel?” was really a vigorous plea for rearmament. The tunnel was only one element in the strategy. It would carry troops and equipment in one direction and food and raw materials in the other. But there was still no tunnel in May 1940, when Churchill became prime minister. To some consternation, after the fall of France, rumors began that the Germans were planning one. The persistent Hankey played a leading role in the scare.
The scare peaked after the Germans’ airborne conquest of Crete in May 1941. In June, British defense chiefs assumed the Germans could land 55,000 troops in Britain by air in three days.
Hankey argued that a tunnel would substantially add to that figure.29 The Germans did consider a tunnel, in January 1941, months after Hitler had postponed Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. John Farquharson has described the project, including the considerable technical obstacles considered in highest secrecy by the Germans. Ultimately, German consulting engineers dismissed the idea as impossible.30
But not Hankey. As chairman of two wartime ad hoc committees, he launched investigations into the possibility. As before, he pressed his argument by distorting facts, claiming that the Germans could complete the “dig” in sixteen months. Thus the threat appeared serioius, and the Royal Engineers installed listening devices in the sea bed. Keith Wilson quips in conclusion of this bizarre episode: “Nothing was heard.” In 1942, Hankey was replaced as head of his two committees—with Churchill’s approval.31 The Prime Minister never ignored the possibility of either side mastering new, secret techniques. He referred to his own side in this endeavor as the “Wizard War.”
“The Churchill-Monnet Tunnel”
The Channel Tunnel Parliamentary Committee revived in 1948. But Churchill seems to have lost interest in a the idea after 1945. At least nothing has survived in the existing written sources, including the copious Churchill Documents, volumes 22 and 23.
Of course in his second Premiership (1951-55), he concentrated on America and the elusive quest for a Big Three summit. But his aloofness was definitely odd in 1945-50, when he spoke widely on the Continent in support of united Europe. Still, when the Channel tunnel became a reality at last, Europeans remembered. The European Parliament proposed the new link be called the “Winston Churchill-Jean Monnet Tunnel.” This had no success.32 In Britain, and even in France, only a handful knew who Jean Monnet was—unlike Winston Churchill.
Endnotes and Sources
For further reading, click on the title links below.
1 Richard S. Grayson, “The British Government and the Channel Tunnel, 1919-39,” in the Journal of Contemporary History, 31/1 (January 1996), 131.
3 Ibid., 239.
4 Winston S. Churchill. “Why Not A Channel Tunnel?” in the Daily Mail, 12 February 1936 (Cohen C488). Reprinted and retitled “Eurotunnel” in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), 4 vols, I, 357-59.
5 “From 1883 to 1894, eleven bills or motions in Parliament were defeated or withdrawn.” —Grayson, Channel Tunnel, 126.
6 By the engineers Nicolas Desmaret in 1751 and Albert Mathieu in 1802. Donald Hunt, The Tunnel: The Story of the Channel Tunnel 1802-1994. (Upton-upon-Severn: Images, 1994), 13-17.
7 Keith M. Wilson, Channel Tunnel Visions, 1850-1945: Dreams and Nightmares. (London: Hambledon), 1994, 67.
8 Churchill, “Why Not A Channel Tunnel?”, 357-59.
9 Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, Vol. 7, The Escaped Scapegoat, May 1915-December 1916 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 1938.
10 Hunt, The Tunnel, 83.
11 Wilson, Tunnel Visions, 83.
12 Ibid., 83.
13 Gilbert, Escaped Scapegoat, 1971.
14 Wilson, Tunnel Visions, 87-88.
15 War Cabinet Minutes, 28 February 1919, in Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, Vol. 8, War and Aftermath, December 1916-June 1919 (Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 557.
16 Diary entries by Sir Henry Wilson and Maurice Hankey, 23 March 1919, in Wilson, Channel Tunnel Visions, 112.
* * *
17 Grayson, Government and the Channel Tunnel, 128.
18 Wilson, Channel Tunnel Visions, 112.
19 Grayson, Government and the Channel Tunnel, 128.
20 Wilson, Tunnel Visions,133.
21 Grayson, Government and the Channel Tunnel, 129.
22 Winston S. Churchill, “Should Strategists Veto the Tunnel?” in The Weekly Dispatch, 27 July 1924 (Cohen C290), reprinted in the Collected Essays, I, 260-64.
24 Wilson, Tunnel Visions, 163.
25 Grayson, Government and the Channel Tunnel, 131.
26 Ibid., 174.
27 Duncan Redford, “Opposition to the Channel Tunnel, 1882-1975: Identity, Island Status and Security,” in History, journal of the Historical Association, 99/334 (January 2014), 104.
28 Churchill, “Why Not A Channel Tunnel?” in Essays I, 359.
29 John Farquharson, John. “After Sealion : A German Channel Tunnel?” in the Journal of Contemporary History 25/4 (October 1990), 409-30.
30 Ibid., 412-13.
31 Hankey chaired the Scientific Advisory Committee (created October 1940) and the Engineering Advisory Committee (April 1941). See Wilson, Tunnel Visions 181.
32 Terry Gourvish, The Official History of Britain and the Channel Tunnel. Whitehall Histories – Government Official History Series. (London: Routledge, 2006), 364.
Antoine Capet, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of British Studies at University of Rouen, France. He is author of a new reference work, Churchill: Le Dictionnaire. The author wishes to thank Richard Langworth of the Churchill Project for kind assistance in research.