For Churchill to maintain optimism of British victory in the darkest days of World War II required a sense of hope that appeared to civilians and advisors to border on lunacy. In September 1940, German bombers began to appear over London. Hitler changed tactics in his attempt to subdue Great Britain. In the previous two months, the Luftwaffe targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in order to weaken the nation to the point that he could launch a German invasion. When he realized such an offensive launch was impossible, because it would deplete too much manpower from the Eastern front, he switched to a campaign of fear and intimidation. Bombing London to ruin would demoralize the population to the point of hopelessness and surrender.
The shock of rejection by the nation fell heavily on Churchill. Indeed, though he accepted the role of leader of the parliamentary opposition, he was never wholly at home in it. The economic and social questions that dominated domestic politics were not at the centre of his interests. Nor, with his imperial vision, could he approve of what he called Labour’s policy of “scuttle,” as evidenced in the granting of independence to India and Burma (though he did not vote against the necessary legislation). But in foreign policy a broad identity of view persisted between the front benches, and this was the area to which Churchill primarily devoted himself. On March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Missouri, he enunciated, in the presence of President Truman, the two central themes of his postwar view of the world: the need for Britain and the United States to unite as guardians of the peace against the menace of Soviet Communism, which had brought down an “iron curtain” across the face of Europe; and with equal fervour he emerged as an advocate of European union. At Zürich, on September 19, 1946, he urged the formation of “a council of Europe” and himself attended the first assembly of the council at Strasbourg in 1949. Meanwhile, he busied himself with his great history, The Second World War, six volumes (1948–53).
Once the decision had been made, Churchill was Overlord’s fierce advocate. He reveled in the tactics and gadgets that characterized the greatest amphibious operation yet attempted—he was especially taken with the Mulberry portable harbors. He also informed Eisenhower of his intention to observe the landings from a British cruiser. The supreme commander replied that Churchill was far too valuable to risk and prohibited it. Churchill calmly replied that as a British citizen he would sign on aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, whereupon Eisenhower’s headquarters contacted Buckingham Palace. King George thereupon called Churchill, declaring that if the prime minister went to Normandy, the monarch could do no less. Churchill relented.
Marshal Josef Stalin makes a toast to Churchill on 30 November 1943, the British premier's 69th birthday, during the Tehran Conference. Stalin was a difficult ally and relations were not always this friendly. With Russia taking the brunt of the war against Germany, Stalin had aggressively insisted on an invasion of northern France. Churchill resisted. He believed that any premature 'Second Front' was likely to fail. At Tehran, a date was finally set for June 1944.
In protecting the alliance, the respect and affection between him and Roosevelt were of crucial importance. They alone enabled Churchill, in the face of relentless pressure from Stalin and ardent advocacy by the U.S. chiefs of staff, to secure the rejection of the “second front” in 1942, a project he regarded as premature and costly. In August 1942 Churchill himself flew to Moscow to advise Stalin of the decision and to bear the brunt of his displeasure. At home, too, he came under fire in 1942: first in January after the reverses in Malaya and the Far East and later in June when Tobruk in North Africa fell to the Germans, but on neither occasion did his critics muster serious support in Parliament. The year 1942 saw some reconstruction of the cabinet in a “leftward” direction, which was reflected in the adoption in 1943 of Lord Beveridge’s plan for comprehensive social insurance, endorsed by Churchill as a logical extension of the Liberal reforms of 1911.
Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon, of which I was speaking just now, the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many are the tales that are told. We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous manœuvre. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
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.”
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.
Churchill’s stirring oratory is perhaps his greatest legacy. His wartime speeches famously gave the British lion its roar during the darkest days of the Second World War. There are still competitions which honour them, including the Sir Winston Churchill Public Speaking Competition (held every year at Blenheim Palace) and the Churchill National Public Speaking Competition for Schools.
When Neville Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin, the gulf between the Cassandra-like Churchill and the Conservative leaders widened. Repeatedly the accuracy of Churchill’s information on Germany’s aggressive plans and progress was confirmed by events; repeatedly his warnings were ignored. Yet his handful of followers remained small; politically, Chamberlain felt secure in ignoring them. As German pressure mounted on Czechoslovakia, Churchill without success urged the government to effect a joint declaration of purpose by Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. When the Munich Agreement with Hitler was made in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, Churchill laid bare its implications, insisting that it represented “a total and unmitigated defeat.” In March 1939 Churchill and his group pressed for a truly national coalition, and, at last, sentiment in the country, recognizing him as the nation’s spokesman, began to agitate for his return to office. As long as peace lasted, Chamberlain ignored all such persuasions.