Churchill was decidedly more circumspect when it came to domestic British politics, in particular when the subject was post-war reconstruction. For good reason. Though leader of the Conservative Party from October 1940, he was also ‘national leader’ of a coalition government. This forced Churchill to maintain a delicate balance in the House of Commons where Tory MPs still held a majority of seats, but where his administration depended on the participation of both Labour and the Liberals. Conveniently, for Churchill, he could argue that it was premature to talk of what would happen after victory. To his mind, the important thing – indeed, the only thing – that mattered was winning the war. After the triumph at El Alamein, soon followed by Sir William Beveridge’s report on the future of social services, that position was no longer tenable. A post-war Britain could be detected just over the horizon, and the Beveridge Report laid out a blueprint for how that Britain could be a very different nation from the one that had emerged after the last world war.
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
The effort was designed to match the gravity of the hour. After the Allied defeat and the evacuation of the battered British forces from Dunkirk, Churchill warned Parliament that invasion was a real risk to be met with total and confident defiance. Faced with the swift collapse of France, Churchill made repeated personal visits to the French government in an attempt to keep France in the war, culminating in the celebrated offer of Anglo-French union on June 16, 1940. When all this failed, the Battle of Britain began on July 10. Here Churchill was in his element, in the firing line—at fighter headquarters, inspecting coast defenses or antiaircraft batteries, visiting scenes of bomb damage or victims of the “blitz,” smoking his cigar, giving his V sign, or broadcasting frank reports to the nation, laced with touches of grim Churchillian humour and splashed with Churchillian rhetoric. The nation took him to its heart; he and they were one in “their finest hour.”
Matthews is right to suggest that Churchill re-recorded the ‘Finest Hour’ speech in 1949.(3) He also makes a valuable point about the variant versions floating around, and about the lack of care that broadcasters have exercised over the years. The post-war history of the speeches is certainly a very interesting issue, and my reference to it, it is true, is buried in a footnote (p. 252, n.173). It is certainly a topic deserving of more extensive treatment, but examining it in the book would not have materially altered my findings about the speeches’ contemporary reception. This may, however, be a good moment to own up to a genuine error, which was kindly drawn to my attention by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre. The book makes the clear suggestion that Churchill broadcast his famous 20 August 1940 speech which referred to ‘The Few’, having earlier given it in the House of Commons (pp. 69, 231). This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that he did so. But having heard the recording of it he made later, I gave into the powerful sense that somehow he ‘must’ have delivered it on the radio at the time. This, I think, is strong testimony to the cognitive dissonance generated when familiar historical myth collides with historical fact, even when one is doing one’s utmost to be hard-headed.
For the next year Britain held its resolve. It was battered but did not crumble. In fact, the war energized Churchill, who was sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister. Churchill maintained his private strength by taking each day at a time. Churchill resolved that the only way to move past The Darkest Hour was to keep moving. He commented that “success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” Alternatively, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British some of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to "any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States." Related Objects
The following year was equally crucial, witnessing Germany’s attack on Russia and America’s entry into the war. Churchill had already established a warm relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt and put aside an instinctive dislike and distrust for Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Churchill, a firm anticommunist, knew Stalin for what he was—unlike Roosevelt, who consistently made allowances for the Soviet dictator, fondly calling the genocidal despot ‘‘Uncle Joe.’’ Despite their personal and national differences with respect to communist Russia, Churchill and Roosevelt remained staunch allies throughout the war. They quickly decided on a ‘‘Germany first’’ strategy, but in early 1942 the main threat was from Japan, which was rolling up easy victories in the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya.