On May 10, 1940, in the midst of the greatest crisis Great Britain had faced since the Napoleonic Wars, Winston Churchill became prime minister.
Churchill had spent much of the 1930s in the political wilderness, a consistently re-elected member of Parliament but with no role in the government or any real power. These had been tough years for Churchill, who had served in various cabinet positions before, during and after the First World War, including first lord of the admiralty, minister of munitions and chancellor of the exchequer.
Churchill had been a frequent critic of his own Tory government, putting the interests of the nation ahead of his own political prospects. Churchill vocally opposed the government of Neville Chamberlain and its policy of appeasement — essentially its attempts to buy off Hitler in the hopes that he would refrain from further aggression.
When Chamberlain agreed that Hitler should occupy the Czech Sudetenland in October 1938, Churchill saw it as folly and stated in the House of Commons, “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat ... we have sustained a defeat without a war.”
Churchill's analysis proved correct, and Hitler showed himself to be a liar when he violated the spirit of the Munich agreement the next spring by occupying the rest of Czechoslovakia. When Britain and Germany finally went to war in September 1939, Chamberlain knew he needed Churchill back in his corner and invited him into the government. Churchill began the Second World War in the same capacity that he began the First World War, as first lord of the admiralty.
By the spring of 1940, things looked bleak for the British, and they were about to get worse. Poland had fallen the previous fall, and in April, Denmark and Norway were crushed under the Nazi jackboot. To make matters worse, the Soviet Union appeared as though it might enter the war as a German ally. Then, in the morning hours of May 10, Hitler launched his attack upon the West.
The German Blitzkrieg savagely assaulted Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France. Chamberlain, who had proven himself not up to the current crisis, had been under political fire in the House of Commons for days and was now asked to step down. Churchill was loyal to Chamberlain but knew that the old statesman was not suited to the role of war leader and longed to serve as prime minister himself. King George VI turned to Churchill and asked him to form a new government.
Churchill writes in his memoirs of his meeting with the king, who invited him to sit and then asked, “I suppose you don't know why I have sent for you?” to which Churchill replied, “Sir, I simply couldn't imagine why.” Churchill then told the king he intended to form a national government, drawing support from all the major political parties, not just the Conservatives.
Churchill's biographer, Martin Gilbert, writes, “Churchill's eight and a half months of frustration were over, his life's ambition had been fulfilled.”
Churchill went on to write, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. ... My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated ....”
Three days later, as the German Blitzkrieg pounded towards the French coast and some voices in Parliament called for negotiation with Germany, Churchill addressed the House of Commons: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air. ... You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”
Churchill's bulldog determination in the face of Nazi victories inspired his nation, and his eloquence rivaled that of Abraham Lincoln, another war leader whose stirring and soulful language brilliantly laid out the issues at hand while strengthening morale in trying times.
The road to victory would take five more years and cost tens of millions of lives, and though Britain alone did not win World War II, without Churchill's leadership in the spring and summer of 1940, Britain could very well have lost it.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. Email: [email protected]