Churchill became British Prime Minister on May 10, 1940. “At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene (of the war),” he later wrote.
May 10 was an even more terrible day than the previous September 3, when World War Two was declared. For now Adolf Hitler’s plan to overrun Europe was in full swing and thousands were already in his clutches. By the end of June, 1940. Britain stood virtually alone as the only combatant still in a position to defy the Nazis.
Invasion of Norway
Winston’s route to the premiership began on April 2, 1940 when the existing Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, proved all too evidently incapable of standing up to the bullying Hitler.
That day, Chamberlain gave a speech suggesting that the Nazi Führer had waited too long to act after his conquest of Poland in September 1939. Hitler, Chamberlain claimed, had “missed the bus”. Events soon proved that far from missing the bus, Hitler was metaphorically driving it.
A week later, on April 9, German forces landed at several places along the coast of Norway. Neighboring Denmark was overcome the same day. Meanwhile, German airborne troops captured Oslo, the Norwegian capital, and the port of Stavanger in southwest Norway.
British and French forces came to their aid and managed to get ashore at Narvik, where they helped the Norwegians put up dogged resistance. Nevertheless, these efforts were doomed to failure, for the Allies had come too late.
Revolt in Parliament
Winston was enraged at this dismal situation and he was not alone. On April 29, a group of Members of Parliament confronted Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, with a strong protest about the government’s “want of initiative”.
Neville Chamberlain , realizing that his premiership was on the line, tried to cling to his position by telling the House of Commons that Britain retained the “balance of advantage” in Norway. This was demonstrably untrue.
On May 7, when Chamberlain arrived at the Commons to take part in a debate on Norway, he was jeered with with ribald cries of “Missed the bus”, “Missed the bus!”
After two days of stormy debate, the government scraped a narrow victory in the subsequent vote, but the verdict proved unacceptable. There was uproar in the Commons and loud demonstrations against the Prime Minister – an unprecedented event in the British Parliament. Now, Chamberlain could no longer ignore the demands for his resignation.
Invasion of Western Europe
Already, Winston had emerged as the front runner to succeed him, but Chamberlain shrank from leaving the premiership in the hands of a man he still regarded as an unreliable troublemaker.
Chamberlain’s choice was Lord Halifax. Halifax, however, was unwilling and put forward his own suggestion. “Winston” he declared “would be a better choice.”
Next day, the picture changed again. On May 10, the forces of Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. In a repeat performance of their Polish campaign, the German blitzkrieg – lightning war – began pounding, strafing and bombing the four countries into submission.
Chamberlain decided, and Winston loyally agreed, that in this new crisis, a change of leadership was unwise. But when the news spread that Chamberlain was going to remain in place, many Conservatives were outraged. However, it was the opposition Labor Party, not Chamberlain’s own side, that decided the issue.
Prime Minister Churchill
In a Cabinet meeting, Chamberlain received a message that no member of the Labor Party intended to serve under him as Prime Minister. It was the end. Less than an hour later, Chamberlain tendered his resignation to King George VI at Buckingham Palace.
That evening, Winston was summoned to the Palace where King George VI asked him to form a government. Winston agreed., feeling profound relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny,” he wrote afterward. “and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
The challenges awaiting Winston were stupendous. Every day, the new Prime Minister and his “Grand Coalition,” as he named the all-Party government he headed, were confronted by new crises and fresh threats.
The Nazi blitzkrieg surged through Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France like an irresistible tide. In the Netherlands, the Dutch were forced to surrender after only four days, on May 14. Luxembourg, which had no army, followed on May 17. The Belgians clung on, but their situation was increasingly grave. They surrendered on May 28.
Winston had hoped that the seemingly formidable French army would be able to hold off the Nazi blitzkrieg but their defenses were soon failing and, even worse, they were rapidly losing the will to fight on.
Despite the proximity of the fighting and the personal risk involved, Winston flew to France twice in three days in mid-June 1940, hoping to persuade the French High Command not to give up the struggle. He even offered to create a union between Britain and France to strengthen their resistance.
Winston’s urgings proved useless.
The French will to win faded fast and Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister, informed Winston that his government might shortly ask the Germans for an armistice.
At this point, Winston’s emotions proved too much for him; he sat listening to Reynaud with tears streaming down his face. The French capitulated on June 22, 1940. Soon afterwards, a collaborationist regime was set up in the town of Vichy, headed by General Philippe Petain.
After the fall of France
The fall of France had grave consequences for Britain, exposing the island country to the threat of invasion by an enemy poised less than twenty-one miles away across the English Channel.
Winston, though, never shirked the truth, however terrifying it might be. “It would be foolish …to disguise the gravity of the hour,” he said “…we must expect that.. the bulk of that hideous (Nazi) apparatus of aggression … will (soon) be turned upon us….. Our task is not only to win the battle, but to win the war.”
- Jackson, Julian: The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (Making of the Modern World) (Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK: OUP Oxford, 2004) ISBN-10: 0192805509/ISBN-13: 978-0192805508
- Powaski, Ronald E: Lightning War: Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940 (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2006) 31 Mar 2006) ISBN-10: 0785820973/ISBN-13: 978-0785820970