The position of the B. E.F had now become critical As a result of a most skillfully conducted retreat and German errors, the bulk of the British Forces reached the Dunkirk bridgehead. The peril facing the British nation was now suddenly and universally perceived. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo “–the evacuation from Dunkirk began. The seas remained absolutely calm. The Royal Air Force–bitterly maligned at the time by the Army–fought vehemently to deny the enemy the total air supremacy which would have wrecked the operation. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the event, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England, including 26,000 French soldiers. On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons, seeking to check the mood of national euphoria and relief at the unexpected deliverance, and to make a clear appeal to the United States.
The electoral onslaught shook Labour but left them still in office. It took what Churchill called “one more heave” to defeat them in a second election, in October 1951. Churchill again took a vigorous lead in the campaign. He pressed the government particularly hard on its handling of the crisis caused by Iran’s nationalization of British oil companies and in return had to withstand charges of warmongering. The Conservatives were returned with a narrow majority of 17, and Churchill became prime minister for the second time. He formed a government in which the more liberal Conservatives predominated, though the Liberal Party itself declined Churchill’s suggestion of office. A prominent figure in the government was R.A. Butler, the progressive-minded chancellor of the Exchequer. Anthony Eden was foreign secretary. Some notable Churchillians were included, among them Lord Cherwell, who, as paymaster general, was principal scientific adviser with special responsibilities for atomic research and development.
78 rpm: Gramophone, Historical Recordings 1051A, privately recorded; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca 12, London XL.1, BBC 50 Years, Decca 12, London XL.1, Decca LXT 6200; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, BP PSPMC 037, BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: This England, EMI, ProArte
As a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
The Churchill wilderness years have been likened to the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, who pleaded in the desert for the people of Israel to change their ways. Others compare him to Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy whom Apollo cursed with always being unheeded. The best comparison is that of the Athenian orator Demosthenes, who wielded his rhetorical gifts to warn of the military threat from Philip II of Macedon. The Athenians ignored Demosthenes’ “philippics” until war was upon them.
However, the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north. Eight or nine armored divisions, each of about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut off all communications between us and the main French Armies. It severed our own communications for food and ammunition, which ran first to Amiens and afterwards through Abbeville, and it shore its way up the coast to Boulogne and Calais, and almost to Dunkirk. Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again there plodded comparatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always so ready to be led to the trampling down in other lands of liberties and comforts which they have never known in their own.
78 rpm: Gramophone (C3223-5) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, Vol. Two, No. 356] BBC, Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund of U.S.A., Hear It Now I; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 4, Decca 8, London XL.9, Hear It Now I, World Record Club EZ.1026, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, ProArte
The German invasion of the Low Countries, on May 10, 1940, came like a hammer blow on top of the Norwegian fiasco. Chamberlain resigned. He wanted Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, to succeed him, but Halifax wisely declined. It was obvious that Churchill alone could unite and lead the nation, since the Labour Party, for all its old distrust of Churchill’s anti-Socialism, recognized the depth of his commitment to the defeat of Hitler. A coalition government was formed that included all elements save the far left and right. It was headed by a war cabinet of five, which included at first both Chamberlain and Halifax—a wise but also magnanimous recognition of the numerical strength of Chamberlainite conservatism—and two Labour leaders, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. The appointment of Ernest Bevin, a tough trade-union leader, as minister of labour guaranteed cooperation on this vital front. Offers were made to Lloyd George, but he declined them. Churchill himself took, in addition to the leadership of the House of Commons, the Ministry of Defence. The pattern thus set was maintained throughout the war despite many changes of personnel. The cabinet became an agency of swift decision, and the government that it controlled remained representative of all groups and parties. The Prime Minister concentrated on the actual conduct of the war. He delegated freely but also probed and interfered continuously, regarding nothing as too large or too small for his attention. The main function of the chiefs of the armed services became that of containing his great dynamism, as a governor regulates a powerful machine; but, though he prodded and pressed them continuously, he never went against their collective judgment. In all this, Parliament played a vital part. If World War II was strikingly free from the domestic political intrigues of World War I, it was in part because Churchill, while he always dominated Parliament, never neglected it or took it for granted. For him, Parliament was an instrument of public persuasion on which he played like a master and from which he drew strength and comfort.
While largely unstated, one of Churchill’s major concerns was limiting Soviet territorial gains in Europe. Having an eye toward the postwar world, he did not want Stalin in control of formerly democratic nations. However, geopolitics required further cooperation with his unlikely ally, and Churchill met Roosevelt for the last time in Stalin’s domain—Yalta in the Crimea, in February 1945. Victory in Europe was visible by then, though with more hard fighting to come in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s premature death in April ended the original Big Three.