10 May 1940 was one of the most important dates in the history of the United Kingdom, because two events of enormous significance occurred on this single day. The first was the launching of Plan Yellow, the German invasion of the Low Countries and France. The second was the appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of Britain.
It seems appropriate that Churchill – who had warned for years about the threat posed to the world by Hitler’s Germany – was now the individual called upon, at this moment of crisis, to lead Britain against Nazi aggression. Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain, who had just suffered humiliation in the House of Commons in the wake of the calamitous British campaign in Norway. The fact that Churchill – as First Lord of the Admiralty – also bore a great deal of the blame for the Scandinavian fiasco was overlooked.
The choice to replace Chamberlain had rested between Churchill and Lord Halifax, the aristocratic Foreign Secretary. But, ultimately, Halifax didn’t have the appetite for the job and, in any case, it would have been hard to run the country from the House of Lords, especially since a coalition government including key members of the Labour party was now to be formed. So it was Churchill, at the age of 65, who became Prime Minister.
‘If you think of the three men who were in a position to lead Britain in the spring and summer of 1940,’ says Professor David Reynolds, ‘Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill; Chamberlain and Halifax have no real stomach for war. Chamberlain says this and Halifax is almost physically sick at the thought of becoming Prime Minister, whereas Churchill was a soldier in his youth, and there is a sense in which he does relish war, he certainly relishes the challenge of war, and so, as many people had recognised in the '30s, even his critics, he was the man for that particular moment if it ever came, and it did in 1940. So I think there’s a real sense that, as he recognises in his own memoirs, it was an almost providential moment for him and he had belatedly caught up with his own destiny.’
And it was certainly a lucky break for Britain that Halifax was not appointed instead of Churchill since, as Andrew Roberts, author of the acclaimed biography of Halifax – ‘The Holy Fox’ – puts it: ‘Halifax had no ideas of his own at all strategically and he wouldn’t have been able to have put anything into the mix.’
Churchill was quite the reverse. He put a great deal ‘into the mix’. He swiftly organized, for example, a National Government of all the best talents - regardless of political affiliation. 'I think one of the best decisions of the war was to bring Ernie Bevin into the cabinet,' says Dr Juliet Gardiner. 'It was one of Churchill’s most imaginative appointments, it’s not an obvious one and he had absolutely no political experience. He was the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, but he turned out to be a titan, an outstandingly good figure....70 percent of the population were working class people, and what was really needed in the war on the home front was to raise production. Ernie Bevin knew that if you didn’t have the co-operation of the workers, and you didn’t have the co-operation of the unions it would have been a disaster, and Ernie Bevin managed to do this.'
But in the days immediately following his appointment as Prime Minister, Churchill's chief contribution to the future of Great Britain was his attempt to squash the suggestion by Lord Halifax that the British government should try out ‘the possibilities of mediation’ in an attempt to end the war.i
Halifax proposed using Mussolini as a ‘go between’ to find out what terms Hitler might want to allow Britain to exit the conflict. This was anathema to Churchill, but, on the other hand, he didn’t want Halifax to resign either. Churchill, in an attempt to preserve unity within his War Cabinet, went as far as to say on 27 May, that: ‘if Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of the restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of central Europe, that was something he [Churchill] was prepared to accept, but he rightly thought such an offer most unlikely.’ii
What’s hard for many people to grasp today is that a number of serious political figures believed at the time that the most ‘sensible’ way forward for Britain in May 1940 was to make peace with the Nazis. And this was a belief Hitler certainly shared. The conquest of Britain or the British Empire was something that had never figured prominently in the German leader’s plans. He regarded Britain as a sea power and Germany as a great continental land power. Their interests – to that extent – were complimentary. But he did want Britain never to pose a threat to future German aggressive intentions, and so Churchill was surely right never to pursue any possible inquiries about what ‘terms’ Hitler might offer in May 1940, since these ‘terms’ would have undoubtedly included the neutering of Great Britain’s powerful fleet and the imposition of a ‘sympathetic’ administration in London.
Churchill dealt skillfully with Lord Halifax’s suggestion that the correct way forward was to try out ‘the possibilities of mediation’. He told Halifax and the rest of the War Cabinet that he believed that Britain had nothing to lose by fighting on. If Britain carried on the war and held out against German attack then ‘if’ peace was then subsequently sought with Hitler ‘the position would be entirely different’. Churchill also made the rousing claim that ‘nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.’
On 28 May, little over two weeks after he had been appointed Prime Minister and with the situation in France catastrophic, Churchill went to the House of Commons to talk to two dozen members of his wider cabinet. It was one of the most crucial moments of Churchill’s career. His colleagues needed to be led, and Churchill was more than prepared to lead them. ‘I am convinced,’ he told them, ‘that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies chocking in his own blood upon the ground.’iii
Churchill himself later recorded the reaction of his colleagues to these stirring words: ‘Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back.’iv
Churchill then added that, ‘There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office.’ This was a nice thought, but surely wrong. Because if Churchill had ‘faltered’ at this moment then it was perfectly possible that instead of being ‘hurled out of office’ a number of his colleagues would have supported the idea – already put forward by Halifax – of investigating some kind of compromise peace with the Nazis.
In May 1940, Churchill undoubtedly saved Britain. Churchill was later to go on and make a number of misjudgments as Prime Minister, but they fade into insignificance compared to the leadership he offered at this most vital moment.
CAB 65/13 and CAB 66/7, National Archives, Kew and Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed The World, 1940-1941
, Allen Lane, 2007, pp. 11-54ii
Ben Pimlott, Hugh Dalton: A Life
, Jonathan Cape, 1986, pp. 26-8 and Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers: Never Surrender - Volume 2, May 1940 - December 1940
, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997, pp. 182-184iv
Quoted in Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Volume II: Their Finest Hour
, Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 88