During the 1930s Churchill would regularly reel off from the back bench the increasing numbers of German weaponry and planes to an un-listening government. He sought to buttress his argument for increasing British preparedness, but his warnings went unheeded. Churchill would later call that period “his years in the wilderness,” yet his exile from power and the clarity of his warnings provided him with the moral authority to lead the nation decisively when he finally became prime minister in May 1940. As he explained in the first volume of his memoirs of the Second World War, “My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me.”
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
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.
After he was stricken, the Times commented, “Life is clearly ebbing away, but how long it will be until the crossing of the bar it is impossible to say.” Not for the first time the Times was wrong about Churchill. It was possible to say how long it would be—Churchill had already said it. Colville told the queen’s private secretary, “He won’t die until the 24th.” Though Churchill seldom regained consciousness in the two weeks that followed, he survived to the predicted date. Churchill had survived his father by precisely three score and ten years—the full biblical lifetime—and had fulfilled many of his father’s ambitions as well as his own.
On May 13 Churchill faced the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister. He warned members of the hard road ahead—“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”—and committed himself and the nation to all-out war until victory was achieved. Behind this simplicity of aim lay an elaborate strategy to which he adhered with remarkable consistency throughout the war. Hitler’s Germany was the enemy; nothing should distract the entire British people from the task of effecting its defeat. Anyone who shared this goal, even a Communist, was an acceptable ally. The indispensable ally in this endeavour, whether formally at war or not, was the United States. The cultivation and maintenance of its support was a central principle of Churchill’s thought. Yet whether the United States became a belligerent partner or not, the war must be won without a repetition for Britain of the catastrophic bloodlettings of World War I; and Europe at the conflict’s end must be reestablished as a viable, self-determining entity, while the Commonwealth should remain as a continuing, if changing, expression of Britain’s world role. Provided these essentials were preserved, Churchill, for all his sense of history, was surprisingly willing to sacrifice any national shibboleths—of orthodox economics, of social convention, of military etiquette or tradition—on the altar of victory. Thus, within a couple of weeks of this crusading anti-Socialist’s assuming power, Parliament passed legislation placing all “persons, their services and their property at the disposal of the Crown”—granting the government in effect the most sweeping emergency powers in modern British history.
In 1911 the provocative German action in sending a gunboat to Agadir, the Moroccan port to which France had claims, convinced Churchill that in any major Franco-German conflict Britain would have to be at France’s side. When transferred to the Admiralty in October 1911, he went to work with a conviction of the need to bring the navy to a pitch of instant readiness. His first task was the creation of a naval war staff. To help Britain’s lead over steadily mounting German naval power, Churchill successfully campaigned in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history. Despite his inherited Tory views on Ireland, he wholeheartedly embraced the Liberal policy of Home Rule, moving the second reading of the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1912 and campaigning for it in the teeth of Unionist opposition. Although, through his friendship with F.E. Smith (later 1st earl of Birkenhead) and Austen Chamberlain, he did much to arrange the compromise by which Ulster was to be excluded from the immediate effect of the bill, no member of the government was more bitterly abused—by Tories as a renegade and by extreme Home Rulers as a defector.
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.”
The British public also felt conflicted. In The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, Jonathan Rose details a Ministry of Information survey the next day which charted “a mood of growing public pessimism.” The social research organization Mass Observation uncovered similar findings at that time. According to the MO report, “Churchill’s speech has been mentioned frequently and spontaneously this morning. There does not appear to have been a great deal in it which was unexpected, but its grave tone has again made some impression, and may be in part the cause of the depression.”
Churchill’s essay is a personal, first-hand account of two days of combat, interspersed with personal asides. The aide-de-camp is exhausted after two days: “I am so tired that I can’t write anymore now. I must add that the cavalry reconnaissance party found that there is no enemy to be seen. Now I wish for a good night, as I don’t know when I get another sleep. Man may work. But man must sleep.”
The train stopped at the St. Louis station in the early morning of March 5. Churchill took a leisurely breakfast in his stateroom before he and the presidential party switched to a local train for Jefferson City. There, Churchill and Truman entered their open-car limousines for the motorcade into Fulton. Churchill found, to his dismay, that he was lacking the requisite prop—a cigar. So he stopped at a local tobacconist for the purchase.
We have found it necessary to take measures of increasing stringency, not only against enemy aliens and suspicious characters of other nationalities, but also against British subjects who may become a danger or a nuisance should the war be transported to the United Kingdom. I know there are a great many people affected by the orders which we have made who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very sorry for them, but we cannot, at the present time and under the present stress, draw all the distinctions which we should like to do. If parachute landings were attempted and fierce fighting attendant upon them followed, these unfortunate people would be far better out of the way, for their own sakes as well as for ours. There is, however, another class, for which I feel not the slightest sympathy. Parliament has given us the powers to put down Fifth Column activities with a strong hand, and we shall use those powers subject to the supervision and correction of the House, without the slightest hesitation until we are satisfied, and more than satisfied, that this malignancy in our midst has been effectively stamped out.
The German breakthrough had not been exploited southwards, and the French had improvised a relatively thinly held defensive line along the Aisne and the Somme. The British military evaluation was that this was unlikely to withstand any major attack by the Wehrmacht. In the air, the French were short of fighter planes and the shortage was worsening due to their many losses in combat. The French military commanders had hence asked for additional British fighter squadrons to be sent into the fight in France. Politically, there were considerable doubts over the French willingness to continue the war, even in the absence of any further military catastrophes. Churchill had argued in favour of sending the fighter squadrons to France because he considered that that move would be vital to sustain French public morale, and also to give no excuse for the collapse of the French Army. That would possibly lead to a French government that would not only drop out of the war, but also become hostile to the United Kingdom. The British War Cabinet discussed this issue at meetings on 3 June and on the morning of 4 June, but it decided to take the advice of the Royal Air Force and the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, that the British priority must be to prepare its own defences. The three squadrons present in France would be kept up to fighting strength, but no further squadrons could be spared for the Battle of France.
Against this loss of over 30,000 men, we can set a far heavier loss certainly inflicted upon the enemy. But our losses in material are enormous. We have perhaps lost one-third of the men we lost in the opening days of the battle of 21st March, 1918, but we have lost nearly as many guns — nearly one thousand-and all our transport, all the armored vehicles that were with the Army in the north. This loss will impose a further delay on the expansion of our military strength. That expansion had not been proceeding as far as we had hoped. The best of all we had to give had gone to the British Expeditionary Force, and although they had not the numbers of tanks and some articles of equipment which were desirable, they were a very well and finely equipped Army. They had the first-fruits of all that our industry had to give, and that is gone. And now here is this further delay. How long it will be, how long it will last, depends upon the exertions which we make in this Island. An effort the like of which has never been seen in our records is now being made. Work is proceeding everywhere, night and day, Sundays and week days. Capital and Labor have cast aside their interests, rights, and customs and put them into the common stock. Already the flow of munitions has leaped forward. There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us, without retarding the development of our general program.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been intervening in the battle, so far as its range would allow, from home bases, now used part of its main metropolitan fighter strength, and struck at the German bombers and at the fighters which in large numbers protected them. This struggle was protracted and fierce. Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment-but only for the moment-died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; that is why I go out of my way to say this. I will tell you about it.
Once it is grasped that I am neither criticising Churchill nor rubbishing his speeches, then Matthews’s critique of my work loses its force. He claims I say that Churchill did not ‘rally the nation’, whereas in fact I write that he was not the sole person who had the capacity to do so. There were a range of other radio speakers who also went down very well, and Churchill should be viewed ‘as the outstanding performer in a rhetorical chorus – or rather a series of talented soloists – dedicated to delivering the same central messages’ (p. 44). In commenting on Churchill’s commendable political visibility versus Hitler’s silence when things went wrong, Matthews ignores the fact that I make exactly the same point myself (p. 230). He suggests that I fail to place Churchill’s oratorical skills in the context of his leadership more generally. But I say that ‘it was clearly possible for Churchill supporters to be depressed, concerned or confused by the contents of a speech without this shaking their faith in him as a leader […] expressing disappointment with a speech did not necessarily imply fundamental dissatisfaction with Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 228). Matthews also takes the view that to say that Churchill’s popularity oscillated as the war situation varied is to state the obvious. Doubtless it should be obvious, but surely a key part of the myth of 1940 is that Churchill made everyone feel great even when – perhaps especially when – things were going disastrously wrong.
Already in 1944, with victory in prospect, party politics had revived, and by May 1945 all parties in the wartime coalition wanted an early election. But whereas Churchill wanted the coalition to continue at least until Japan was defeated, Labour wished to resume its independence. Churchill as the popular architect of victory seemed unbeatable, but as an election campaigner he proved to be his own worst enemy, indulging, seemingly at Beaverbrook’s urging, in extravagant prophecies of the appalling consequences of a Labour victory and identifying himself wholly with the Conservative cause. His campaign tours were a triumphal progress, but it was the war leader, not the party leader, whom the crowds cheered. Labour’s careful but sweeping program of economic and social reform was a better match for the nation’s mood than Churchill’s flamboyance. Though personally victorious at his Essex constituency of Woodford, Churchill saw his party reduced to 213 seats in a Parliament of 640.
At the outbreak of World War II, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in command of the Royal Navy. At the same time the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wanted to appease Germany and Hitler. Churchill knew this would not work and warned the government that they needed to help fight Hitler or Hitler would soon take over all of Europe.