EIGHTY years ago today, Britain faced its most desperate hour. At dawn on Friday, May 10, 1940, Hitler launched his blitzkrieg in the West and the German armies swept unstoppably into France and the Low Countries.
Later that same day, in one of the more fortuitous coincidences of history, Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister by King George VI.
The next six calamitous weeks would see the Nazis overrunning Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland, followed by the Dunkirk evacuation and the Fall of France. By late June, Britain would stand alone, threatened with invasion.
But, with the appointment of Churchill, never was there a better instance of cometh the hour, cometh the man. In the face of national disaster, he was undaunted and resolute. Five years later, almost to the day, came his ultimate triumph as Germany surrendered unconditionally.
However, in those fateful few days of May 1940 it was by no means certain that he would be chosen to lead the country.
The political drama began on Wednesday May 8, following a debate in the Commons about the recent British military debacle in Norway. In what was effectively a vote of censure against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Labour forced a division and the Conservative majority was slashed from 213 to 81.
During the debate, Tory MP Leo Amery famously echoed Cromwell’s words of dismissal to the Long Parliament when he told Chamberlain: ‘You have sat too long here for any good that you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’
Chamberlain, already tainted in the eyes of many by appeasement and the 1938 Munich ‘peace for our time’ deal with Hitler, knew his days were numbered. But who would succeed him? The only plausible candidates were 65-year-old Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax – known as the ‘Holy Fox’.
The charming, urbane, God-fearing Halifax, 59, was considered the favourite, the choice of Chamberlain and the Establishment. Churchill was regarded by many MPs as a maverick and adventurer, his judgment reckless and unsound. He had spent much of the previous ten years in the political wilderness.
The events of the next 48 hours unfolded swiftly and to this day there is confusion and controversy about what happened and when, and especially about what was said. But a broad outline can be discerned.
The day after the debate, Thursday May 9, Churchill lunched with his fellow Tory MP Anthony Eden and the Lord Privy Seal, Sir Kingsley Wood, a close ally of Chamberlain. Wood advised Churchill that if Chamberlain were to ask his views on Halifax becoming Prime Minister, he should adopt a simple tactic – remain silent.
At 4.30pm Chamberlain summoned Churchill, Halifax and the government Chief Whip David Margesson to Downing Street. Chamberlain asked Margesson who should be Prime Minister, but he refused to speak.
The question hung in the air. A tense silence followed. Chamberlain is said to have asked: ‘Can you see any reason, Winston, why in these days a peer should not be Prime Minister?’
Churchill recalled: ‘I have had many important interviews in my public life and this was certainly the most important. Usually I talk a great deal, but on this occasion I was silent . . . as I remained silent, a long pause ensued. It certainly seemed longer than the two minutes which one observes in the commemorations of Armistice Day.’
Finally, Halifax broke the silence. He said it would be awkward for him, a peer, to become Premier. He would be only an honorary leader, a cipher, and Churchill would be running the war anyway from the Commons. Basically, he knew he was not up to the job and he did not want it.
Shortly afterwards, Chamberlain called in Labour leader Clement Attlee and his deputy Arthur Greenwood and asked them if Labour would serve in a multi-party national government. They told him they would consult their national executive, which was meeting in Bournemouth prior to the annual Labour conference.
Next day, as the German onslaught began, Chamberlain briefly changed his mind about resigning. He thought he should stay on until the battle was decided. But Kingsley Wood persuaded him otherwise.
In any event, the die was cast. Attlee and Greenwood took a train to Bournemouth that morning. At 5pm they phoned Chamberlain to tell him Labour would not serve under him, but would do so under another Conservative. Crucially, they did not name Churchill. Attlee is said to have favoured Halifax.
Despite Halifax’s misgivings, he almost certainly would have taken over as Prime Minister if Chamberlain had put his name forward to the King. But Chamberlain knew, as did Parliament and the country, that Britain now needed a warrior leader.
The Prime Minister immediately went to Buckingham Palace and tendered his resignation to George VI, recommending that he summon Churchill.
At 6pm, Churchill was called to the Palace. The King shared the general Establishment antipathy and wariness towards him and was disappointed that Halifax had not been chosen.
Churchill recalled: ‘His Majesty looked at me searchingly and quizzically for some moments and then said: “I suppose you don’t know why I have sent for you?” Adopting his mood, I replied: “Sir, I simply couldn’t imagine why.” He laughed and said: “I want to ask you to form a government.” I said I would certainly do so.’
Churchill had taken on a terrible burden. However, the prospect left him undaunted and even buoyant.
In his memoirs he wrote: ‘During these last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came.
‘But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed about 3am I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.
‘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. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonism.
‘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. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all and I was sure I would not fail.
‘Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.’
And so Britain finally had the leader it so desperately needed. Blood, toil, tears and sweat, the ‘finest hour’ and the long slog to victory were yet to come.
Churchill had his faults and failings. But it is doubtful if anyone else could have led the country out of the existential crisis it faced in May 1940, saving us from ‘the abyss of a new Dark Age’ that a Nazi victory would have entailed.
Which makes it all the harder today to see his wartime achievements marginalised or denigrated in our schools, as Chris McGovern graphically outlined last week in TCW.
In the final analysis, though, the greatness of Churchill rises above the rewriting of history. As he once said: ‘The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.’