The Life and Struggles of Winston Churchill: The Road to War

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Sir Winston Churchill

In 1939, Winston’s many predictions made over the years came true as one Nazi aggression after another took place, and World War Two began.

In March 1934, Winston suggested to Maurice Hankey, the British government’s Cabinet Secretary, that a Ministry of Defense should be created. Two years later, in February 1936, Hankey discussed the appointment of a Defense Minister with Sir Warren Fisher, Permanent Secretary of the Treasury.

Winston overlooked again

Fisher felt the post should go to a man ‘”with no axe to grind, or desire to make a place for himself.”

This was definitely NOT a description of Winston Churchill. He had been creating uproar in Parliament for years with his insistence that the British government must resupply the armed services in order to confront Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany as grave dangers to the peace of Europe. No one in power really listened and Winston was vilified in Parliament as a menace.

When the appointment of a Minister of Supply was at long last considered by the British government, the post went to the conscientious but insipid Sir Thomas Inskip, the Attorney General.

Unlike Winston, Inskip fitted the brief perfectly. As Neville Chamberlain, a future Prime Minister, commented: “Inskip would create no jealousies. He would excite no enthusiasm that would involve us in fresh perplexities.”

Hitler shocks the world

During 1936, it became increasingly apparent that a very serious crisis in Europe was in the making. The previous year, Hitler had shocked the world with the news that Nazi Germany was actively rearming. `This was completely contrary to the stipulations of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which ended World War One.

Yet in response, neither Britain nor France took any action against the Nazi regime. Instead, their supine attitude encouraged Hitler to see how much further he could push the British and French before they reacted.

He began with the Rhineland, the region between France and Germany which had been demilitarized at Versailles. On March 7, 1936, German troops marched in and garrisoned the Rhineland, but again this action produced no response.

The Nazi threat to Europe

Winston was alarmed. He was certain the Nazis were on the war path and within six months could invade France through Belgium and the Netherlands. This would put them in a position to threaten Britain, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland and the Balkans. The Baltic states would also be imperilled.

Predictions like this were gradually gaining Winston an audience. His support came not only from serving military officers by also from MPs who were at long last waking up to the extreme danger which Nazi Germany presented.

Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office was on Winston’s side. In addition, other Foreign Office (FO) officials were following the lead pioneered by Ralph Wigram who first revealed FO information to Winston in 1934. In May 1936, Vansittart and Wigram arranged for Winston to address the Anti-Nazi League which had been formed to counteract Nazi propaganda.

A new Prime Minister

Soon after the remilitarization of the Rhineland, Winston had informed the pro German Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Earl of Londonderry: “If I read the future aright, Hitler’s government will confront Europe with a series of outrageous events and ever growing military might”.

The first of Hitler’s outrageous events occurred on March 12,1938, with the Anchluss, the integration of Austria into Nazi Germany: the Anchluss, too, was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty.

The Munich Agreement of 1938

Next, the Führer started to make threats over the alleged maltreatment of ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland, the border areas of Czechoslovakia. Six months after the Anchluss, on September 29, Neville Chamberlain, a champion of appeasement, who had succeeded Stanley Baldwin as British prime minister in 1937, and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier, flew to Munich for two days of negotiation with Hitler.

The settlement they made was hailed as a triumph of appeasement. It certainly was. The two Prime Ministers agreed that Hitler could absorb the Sudetenland into German territory and did so without consulting the Czech government.

Chamberlain returned to England to be greeted at Hendon airport in London by crowds cheering his claim to have secured “peace for our time”. “The idiots” Daladier commented when he received the same enthusiastic reception in Paris.

Hitler had promised at Munich that the Sudetenland would be his last territorial demand. It was another lie. Less than six months later, on March 15, 1939, Nazi troops invaded and occupied the rest of Czachoslovakia.

After another three months, Hitler began to pressure Poland with demands to return two territories taken from Germany after World War One: the free city of Danzig and the Polish Corridor which gave the land-locked Poles access to the sea.

Campaigning for Winston

In the summer of 1939, a campaign was under way in British newspapers to bring Winston back into government. Some junior ministers took up the theme to demand that he be made War Minister. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain refused. He hoped the campaign would peter out and also that the Poles would concede the territories to Hitler. But the Poles stoutly refused the Nazi demands.

Not only that, an even greater danger to the Poles made its appearance.

On August 23, 1939, to the rest of the world’s amazement and alarm, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia signed a mutual non-aggression pact. Two ideological enemies, fundamentally opposed in almost every respect, had become allies and a menace to the rest of Europe. Chamberlain, his fervent hopes for peace ruined, was heartbroken.

Two days later, Britain signed a treaty of alliance with Poland, promising support should the Nazis attack. On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland and an unstoppable blitzkrieg – lightning war – swept through the country. Polish resistance was scattered.

Britain again at war

Britain and France, finally responded to Nazi aggression. They demanded that the Germans withdraw, but their protests went unheeded. Chamberlain was left with only one possible course of action.

In a radio broadcast made at 11.15 hours on Sunday, September 3, he informed the British people that they were once again at war with Germany. World War Two, so long predicted, so greatly feared, had begun.

Sources:

  1. Roberts, Andrew: The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (New York, NY: Harper publishing, 2011) ISBN-10: 0061228591/ISBN-13: 978-0061228599
  2. Faber, David: Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II by David Faber (London, UK: Simon & Schuster;,, 2010) ISBN-10: 1439132348/ISBN-13: 978-1439132340