January 1940 – The Matter Of Leslie Hore-Belisha – Past Daily Reference Room
The name Leslie Hore-Belisha may not ring many bells in reference to the history of World War 2, aside from being associated with traffic lights at British Pedestrian crossings (the Belisha Beacon), but in January of 1940 his name conjured up visions of in-fighting and anti-semitism within the Chamberlain government.
Leslie Hore-Belisha was a career politician. First a member of the Liberal Party becoming an MP as well as Cabinet Minister. Then switching parties to the Conservatives and becoming the Minister of Transport where he modernized the British road system between 1934-1937. Then came an appointment as Minister of War and that’s where the feuds and eventual removal came. Hore-Belisha was branded as someone who did not get along well with members of the Military, who saw him as grandiose, ambitious and over-assertive. He was also Jewish, and many feel it was his religion that caused his downfall, at least with the Chamberlain government. It was also thought to be largely responsible for his being blocked from another appointment as Minister of Information.
His biographer summed it up this way (via Wikipedia):
He was a brilliant speaker, a warm and engaging personality, a go-getter and a persistent driver, a master of the unconventional or indirect approach, a patriot and a man of moral and physical courage, not a great intellect but an original with a flair for imaginative gestures and for public relations. He also had personal weaknesses. He was extremely self-centered and had a fine conceit of himself. At times he was accused of sharp practice…. Sharp practitioner or not, [his] quickness of mind and tongue, and transparent ambition to be seen to succeed, made him vulnerable to smears…. His over-assertiveness…led him to appear inconsiderate of the feelings and views of others.
In January 1940, the Prime Minister dismissed Hore-Belisha from the War Office. Oswald Mosley, leader of the British fascists, attacked him as a ‘Jewish warmonger’. However his political weakness stemmed in part from his disputes with the Army high command and the King. By 1940, his relations with Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, had deteriorated such that neither man had confidence in the other. Gort and other generals disliked Hore-Belisha’s showmanship, but their main disagreements had stemmed from differences of opinion concerning the defence of France along the border with Belgium. Hore-Belisha was unpopular amongst his fellow ministers, with meetings of the War Cabinet said to be regularly tense and loud. As a result, Chamberlain agreed to replace him as Secretary of State for War.
Military antisemitism contributed to tensions between Hore-Belisha and Gort, with Henry Pownall, the chief of staff to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France and Belgium until the fall of France in May 1940, arguing in his diary that ‘the ultimate fact is that they could never get on – you couldn’t expect two such utterly different people to do so – a great gentleman and an obscure, shallow-brained, charlatan, political Jewboy’.
Initially, the Prime Minister considered Hore-Belisha for the post of Minister of Information, but decided against this when the Foreign Office raised concerns about the effect of having a Jewish politician in this position given widespread feelings of antisemitism. Instead, the Prime Minister offered him the post of Presidency of the Board of Trade. Hore-Belisha refused this demotion and resigned from the government.
Here is a news account of Hore-Belisha’s resignation and Prime Minister Chamberlain’s reaction as broadcast with other news from the BBC Home Service, approximately January 12, 1940.