On September 3, 1939, the day World War Two was declared, Winston was appointed to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Winston’s ten years in the political wilderness were over. Nearly a quarter century had passed since he left the Admiralty in disgrace in 1915. “So it was,” Winston wrote “that I came again to the room I had quitted in pain and sorrow. Once again, we must fight for life and honor against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it!”
Challenges for Winston
It was an exciting, if daunting, prospect, for Winston. At age 65, he had reached a time of life when other men could expect to enjoy the sunset years that followed a lifetime of work. But Winston’s real work was only just beginning.
The challenge he faced in his second term at the Admiralty was formidable. Very soon, he discovered that Britain was dangerously ill-prepared for war. Factories had not been mobilized fast enough.
There were critical shortfalls in almost every possible way. The supply of munitions was well below par. So were weaponry, up to date equipment for the army and modern aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Shipbuilding for the Royal Navy had been neglected, creating a shortage of capital vessels to provide escorts for battleships.
Blitzkrieg in Poland
Meanwhile, in Poland, the forces of Nazi Germany which had invaded the country on September 1 in a fury of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, were demonstrating how quick and crushing their victory could be.
Six armored and eight motorized divisions smashed the antiquated Polish forces while the Luftwaffe, the German air force, destroyed the railways and shot the Polish air force out of the sky.
On September 17, Soviet Russia activated its non-aggression pact withe Nazi Germany, signed the previous August 23, and Soviet forces invaded from the east. By the end of September, Poland had been carved up between them.
On October 1, Winston made his first wartime broadcast. He spoke of the fate that had overtaken Poland, which had a miserable history of being invaded and conquered by both Germany and Russia.
“Poland,” he told his audience “has again been overrun by two of the great powers which held her in bondage for 150 years but nevertheless proved unable to quench the spirit of the Polish nation. The heroic defense of Warsaw shows that the soul of `Poland is indestructible and that she will rise again like a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but still remains a rock.”
At the Admiralty, Winston galvanized his staff with a constant flow of ideas. He was willing to consider any measure, any theater of conflict, any even half promising idea that might enable Britain to help the Poles – and Britain – put up effective resistance to the Nazis.
Ideas for Making War
On the second day of the War, he suggested that the French army, backed by the RAF, should mount an attack on the West Wall, the Germans’ western line of defense, to divert their attention from Poland.
Eight days later, Winston was fielding a plan to send two battleships to bombard the German Baltic coast. A week later, he was proposing to cut off the Germans’ supply of Swedish iron ore, which was transported via the Lapland Railway and the port of Narvik in Norway.
If the Navy could lay mines inside Norwegian territorial waters, the iron ore carriers would have to divert away from Narvik and out to sea, where British ships would be waiting for them.
This last scheme had the backing of the Admiralty, but Winston came up against resistance from Neville Chamberlain. The Prime Minister’s attitude, wrote Dr. Thomas Jones, a former Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet “was costive and dull….(He) talks of endurance and victory in the most defeatist tones.”
By contrast, Winston always appeared confident, although he never promised miracle solutions. His speeches in Parliament and in broadcasts were realistic and hopeful but also defiant.
His broadcast of October 1. in which he spoke of the threat to Britain from German submarines demonstrated his approach. “I speak as First Lord of the Admiralty with special caution” he began. “It would seem that the U-boat attack upon the life of the British Isles has not so far proved successful.
“It is true,” he went on “that when they sprang out upon us as we were going about our ordinary business … they managed o do some serious damage. But the Royal Navy has immediately attacked the U-boats and is hunting them night and day …”
“We must, of course, expect that the U-boat attack upon the seaborne commerce of the world will be renewed presently on a greater sale. We hope, however, that by the end of October, we shall have three times as many hunting craft at work … and we hope that … our means of putting down this pest will grow continually.”
The war, Winston warned, might last for as long as three years, but Britain would fight to the end “convinced that we are the defenders of civilization and freedom.”
Facing Up to Danger
Unlike many of his colleagues in government, Winston did not shy away from danger. On October 5, 1939, Adolf Hitler indicated his readiness to negotiate peace with Britain and France in exchange for recognition of German dominance over Poland the Czechoslovakia. Some ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax a champion, like Chamberlain of appeasement, were tempted to bargain.
Winston refused even to consider negotiations unless reparations were made to the conquered peoples and their “effective life and sovereignty” were restored. He was determined that the war against Nazi Germany should be prosecuted with steady resolve.
Victory” he reminded his fellow ministers “will never be found by taking the line of least resistance.”
- Corum, James S. The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999) ISBN-10: 0700609628/ISBN-13: 978-0700609628
- Bell, P.M.The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (3rd Edition) by P. M. H. Bell (Harlow, Essex, UK: Longman, 2007) ISBN-10: 1405840285/ISBN-13: 978-1405840286
- Winston Churchill Speech – We shall fight them on the beaches