Saturday, July 27, 2013



Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany after the surrender of France on 22 June, 1940 until 22 June, 1941, when the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought the Soviets into the war. During that year, the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain, foiling a Nazi invasion, but British towns suffered punishing air raids in the blitz. 
After nearly six weeks of unremitting crisis, the strain was starting to show. When Churchill repeated his 'finest hour' speech on radio on the evening of 18 June, 1940, he sounded tired. His voice was rough and some of the defiant punch had gone out of it. That same night, the war took a frightening turn when 120 Luftwaffe bombers raided eastern England. Nine people were killed. Churchill spent the following weekend at Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence in Buckinghamshire. The atmosphere was grim. As he later told Anthony Eden, his War Minister: 'Normally, I wake up buoyant to face the new day. Then, awoke with dread in my heart.' On 20 June, Churchill had told a secret session of the House of Commons that plans for prosecuting the war in 1941 and 1942 had been laid, but there was no guarantee that Britain would remain at liberty lonj enough to put them into practice. Churchill's mood swung between his 'black dog' depressions and bouts of aggression. It became clear to Clementine that Churchill's fits of temper were making it difficult for his fellow ministers to work with him

[Churchill signs autographs for crewmen of HMS Ajax in 1940. In December 1939, the Ajax served as the flagship of the Navy's South America Division, hunting down the German pocket battleship Admiral- Graf Spee, which had sunk several Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic. Churchill's stubborn expression gained him the enduring nickname of the British Bulldog. He is pictured on the cover of'Time magazine in 1941.]

and she tried to intervene. 'My darling', Clementine began, 'one of the men in your entourage - a devoted friend - has ... told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner .... My darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner and you are not so kind as you used to be ... I cannot bear that those who serve the country and yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you. Besides, you won't get the best results by irascibility and rudeness ... '


Churchill valued Clementine's advice, but had little time to adjust his conduct before he was faced with an agonising decision. It concerned the French fleet berthed at the naval base of Mers el Kebir, near Oran in Algeria. After the Franco-German Armistice was signed on 22 June, these powerful, well-equipped vessels were in danger of .

[Churchill inspects the Scottish coastal defences in October 1940. The vulnerability of the defences had been highlighted a year earlier, when a U-boat sneaked into the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak.]
falling into German hands. When the French authorities at Oran, who were loyal to the Vichy government, refused to co-operate with Britain by putting their ships out of reach, Churchill ordered the.destruction of the fleet. On the morning of 3 July, 1940, the guns of Force H, the Royal Navy squadron in the Mediterranean, blew up one French cruiser, severely damaged another and killed 1300 French seamen. Churchill later wrote of this attack on a former ally as 'a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.'
The action at Mers el Kebir had unexpected, though salutary, effects. It removed any lingering doubts, especially in the United States, over

[The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was used during the Battle of Britain to escort and protect German bombers. The twin-engined fighter was a disaster and had to be withdrawn because of its poor manoeuvrability and lack of speed, which made it vulnerable to the RAF's Spitfires and Hurricanes.]
Britain's will to fight and win the war, and gave the British a new name for ruthless resolve. Churchill called Mers el Kebir 'the turning point in our fortunes. It made the world realise that we were in earnest in our intentions to carry on.'


The next, more serious, test of Britain's will soon followed. Plans were being laid by the Germans for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. In preparation for this, the Luftwaffe launched air attacks on Britain in order to destroy the RAF and establish supremacy of the air. The attacks began on 13 August - Adlertag, or Eagle Day. Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the head of the German air force, had every expectation of quick success. Aircraft production in Britain had accelerated since the war began, but not enough to confront Goering's Luftwaffe on equal terms. The RAF had only 650 Hurricane and Spitfire fighters to face the Luftwaffe's 2800 fighters, but this disparity was deceptive. The RAF managed to keep 600 Spitfires and Hurricanes in service every day, and these aircraft had the advantage, of operating from their home bases. The equivalent figure for the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Bf 109s was 800, hut their bases in the recently conquered territories of Belgium and France were not yet fully prepared. In addition, the Luftwaffe's flying time over

Britain was restricted to around 25 minutes by the limited amount of fuel their aircraft could carry. But the most crucial advantage the RAF enjoyed was the chain of radar warning stations which could detect incoming raiders at long range. Radar enabled the RAF to concentrate its squadrons and have them waiting in the right place before the Luftwaffe arrived. August 1940 was hot and sunny. Day after day, the cloudless skies of southern England, scarred by the vapour trails of the contestants, afforded observers a grandstand view of the dogfights taking place overhead. The RAF made full use of the advantage of surprise radar allowed them. On 13 August the Luftwaffe flew 1485 sorties, yet failed to break the back of RAF resistance. German losses were three times greater - 45 aircraft shot down, compared to 13 RAF planes.


Churchill had never lost his boyish sense of excitement at the prospect of history unfolding. News of how the aerial battle was progressing was brought to him at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's official residence in London, but he wanted to witness the action for himself. On 15 August, he drove to Stanmore, north-west of London, to monitor the progress of the battle in the operations room of Fighter Command. The next day, he repeated the experience in the operations room of Fighter Command's 11 Group at Uxbridge in Middlesex. The exploits of RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain, as it soon came to be known, assumed heroic proportions, and on 20 August, Churchill told the House of Commons: 'The gratitude of every home in our island, in our empire, and indeed throughout the world ... goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge of mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

From 24 August, the Luftwaffe concentrated its attacks on airfields, aircraft factories, and communications and control centres, causing I severe damage and putting many sector control stations out of action. By 5 September, the RAF had lost 450 aircraft, with 231 pilots killed or injured, and was on the brink of defeat. But total victory still eluded the Luftwaffe and, though critically damaged, the RAF was not ready to give up the fight. From the start of the battle, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering had been looking for a single target whose destruction would achieve their ends quickly and decisively. Their first choice, the RAF, had proved tougher than expected, so they changed the focus of the attacks. On 7 September, 1940, they unleashed the fury of the Luftwaffe on London in the first of a long series of assaults that

The disastrous military events which have happened during the past fortnight have not come to me with any sense of surprise. Indeed, I indicated a fortnight ago as clearly as I could to the House that the worst possibilities were open; and I made it perfectly clear then that whatever happened in France would make no difference to the resolve of Britain and the British Empire to fight on, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.]

[The brave young pilots of the RAF, referred to as 'The Few' by Churchill, outmatched the German Luftwaffe in a fierce battle in the skies during the late summer of 1940. But casualties were high and the pilots had a life expectancy of just four to five weeks.]
became known as the blitz. It was a tactical mistake, for it gave the RAF the time to recover their shattered airfields, which meant that British chances of survival improved. The blitz began with daylight raids, but the Luftwaffe lost too many bombers by day and later switched to night raids. During one attack, an air raid shelter took a direct hit, killing 40 people inside. Churchill came to survey the ruins and found himself surrounded by a crowd of survivors and bereaved relatives.
'We can take it! Give it 'em back!' they shouted, expressing their defiance with recently coined slogans. Churchill was so overwhelmed, he wept.
As the raids intensified, 10 Downing Street became vulnerable. On 16 September, Churchill, Clementine and the Downing Street staff moved into a specially fortified set of rooms in the Board of Trade Building opposite St James's Park. The rooms, which became known as the Number 10 Annexe, were strengthened inside by steel girders and outside by steel shutters. The shutters were  closed as soon as the air raid siren sounded, in preparation for an impending attack. The annexe remained Churchill's headquarters  for the rest of the war. In the underground basement, the Central War Rooms, later known as the Cabinet War Rooms, were built for meetings of Churchill's War Cabinet and the Defence Committee.
Churchill refused to remain inside his fortified bunker and spent nights watching from the roof of the government buildings in Whitehall - with searchlights scouring the skies overhead, the thunder of anti-aircraft guns and the whistle and roar of bombs descending and exploding. A year earlier, Churchill had believed that rriercy should soften the brutalities of war -'God forbid we should ever part company with

[Churchill was appalled by the devastation caused by the blitz in December 1940. 'They burned a large part of the City of London ... 'he telegraphed Roosevelt, 'and the scenes of widespread destruction here ... are shocking.']

that,' he had commented - but the sight of London ablaze around him hardened his heart. As his secretary John Colville noted in his diary on 19 September, the Prime Minister was 'becoming less and less benevolent towards the Germans ... and talks about castrating the lot!'
By the time the blitz ended in May 1941, the Luftwaffe had extended the bombing beyond London to Coventry, Liverpool and other industrial cities and ports. In just under nine months more than 43,000 civilians were killed,
[Churchill and Clementine  met General "Wladyslaw Sikorski during a review of Polish troops in England. Sikorski was Prime Minister of the exiled Polish government based in London. The general was killed in a plane crash at Gibraltar in 1943.]

another 51,000 were seriously injured and large areas of the bombed cities lay in ruins.
On 15 September, 1940, only eight days after the bombing of London began, the RAF brought an end to the Battle of Britain. That day, some 500 Luftwaffe aircraft crossed the English coast but only about 70 managed to reach their targets in central London. According to RAF statistics, 174 enemy aircraft were destroyed that day, and another nine were brought down by anti-aircraft fire. The British lost 25 aircraft and 13 pilots.
The same day, RAF bombers joined forces with Royal Navy ships to destroy some 200 barges moored along the coast of northern France, which were preparing for an invasion. Gradually the Luftwaffe's massed daylight raids tapered off. The

[Churchill tries out a Sten 9mm sub-machine gun at a firing range in Kent early in 1941. Cheap, reliable and easy to produce in quantity, the Sten was widely used by British and Commonwealth forces during the war.]
last of them took place on 30 September. The Germans had failed to take control of the air and without it, no invasion of England could succeed.
On 17 September, Hitler suspended Operation Sealion indefinitely. Britain was out of danger, but Churchill warned against a lapse in vigilance. 'Do not let us be lured into supposing that the danger is past,' he told the House of Commons. 'On the contrary, unwearying vigilance and the swift and steady strengthening of our Force by land, sea and air ... must be at all costs maintained .... Because we feel easier in ourselves and see our way more clearly through our difficulties and dangers than we did some months ago, because foreign countries, friends or foes, recognise the giant, enduring, resilient strength of Britain and the British Empire, do not let us dull for one moment the sense of the awful hazard in which we stand ... We must be united, we must be undaunted, we must be inflexible. Our qualities and deeds must burn and glow through the gloom of Europe until they become the veritable beacon of its salvation.'


Churchill's dogged determination, together with the triumph of the Battle of Britain, combined to make a deep impression on President Roosevelt. He was now willing to make a deal with Churchill. In exchange for the bases the United States needed in the Caribbean, he agreed to supply the 50 American destroyers Churchill wanted to counteract the threat posed by German submarines. The Destroyers for Bases agreement was announced in September 1940. For Churchill, this was a significant achievement, as it symbolised the beginning of an alliance between Britain and the United States.
Roosevelt insisted on secrecy. Congress and the American nation as a whole were strongly opposed to intervening in Europe. A scheme for long-term cooperation was developed but given a cryptic name: the Standardisation of Arms Committee. Its purpose was to pinpoint and exploit strategic areas in which Britain and the United States could cooperate. Britain's most pressing needs were for food and armaments. When Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's special envoy, arrived in Britain early in January 1941, he was informed that the US needed to send a minimum of 24 million tons of arms and 16 million tons of food to maintain the British war effort.


Problems arose over how Britain was to pay for the war supplies. After only 15 months of war, Britain's gold and dollar reserves were seriously depleted: they totalled a little over half the cost of the arms supplies ordered for the first three months of 1941. Roosevelt solved the problem with the Lend-Lease arrangement, which allowed Britain to receive arms and other supplies from the United States and delay payment until after the war. Lend-Lease came with a hard bargain: Britain would have to pay some of her debts in gold and sell her commercial assets in the United States. Despite the harsh terms of the arrangement, it signalled to Churchill a long-term commitment to help Britain in the struggle against Hitler. The support of the United States was confirmed in talks held in Washington at the end of January 1941, which revealed that the Americans were willing to consider creating a unified military command for US and British forces, should the United States be forced into the war.

11 SEPTEMBER, 1040
"These cruel, wanton, indiscriminate bombings of London are, of course, a part of
Hitler's invasion plan. He hopes, by killing large numbers of civilians, and women and children, that he will terrorise and cow the people of this mighty ... city .... Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fibre of the Londoners .... This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatreds ... has now resolved to try to break our famous island race .... What he has done is kindle a fire in British hearts ... which will glow long after all traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burned out of Europe .... 

At four o'clock this morning, Hitler attacked and invaded Russia. All his usual formalities of perfidy were observed with scrupulous technique. A non-aggression treaty had been solemnly signed and was in force between the two countries .... Under its cloak of false confidence, the German armies drew up in immense strength along the line which stretches from the White Sea to the Black Sea .... Then, suddenly, without declaration of war, without even an ultimatum, German bombs rained down from the air upon the Russian cities, the German troops violated the frontiers and an hour later, the German Ambassador, who till the night before was lavishing his assurances of friendship, almost of alliance, upon the Russians, called upon the Russian Foreign Minister to tell him that a state of war existed between Germany and Russia."
At the same time, Harry Hopkins concluded two more agreements with Churchill's government in London. First, where the need was urgent, American aircraft carriers would be made available to transport aircraft to Britain. Secondly, British and American intelligence in Nazi-occupied countries would pool their resources. Practical cooperation began before the end of January when a Purple encoding machine, the Japanese version of the German Enigma machine, arrived at the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, along with two American signals intelligence experts.
The Americans were keeping a careful watch on the Japanese, whose aggressions in China over the previous decade, coupled with their plans for economic dominance over the Pacific, looked as if they could escalate into war against the United States. Now the British were being allowed in on the act: with the Purple machine at their disposal, the decoding experts at Bletchley could read the thousands of top-secret radio signals sent out by Japanese diplomats, consular officials, naval and merchant ships.
Harry Hopkins returned to Washington at the end of January, impressed by what he had seen. Churchill had made sure that Roosevelt's emissary learned as much about Britain at war as he could manage during his busy three-week stay. Churchill took Hopkins to Scotland, where he heard the Prime Minister tell a Glasgow audience: 'My one aim is to extirpate Hitlerism from Europe'. The two men went to Dover where they surveyed the gun batteries pointing across the Channel towards the coast of Nazi-occupied France. While in London, Hopkins was able to observe how the life of the city and the good humour of Londoners were maintained, despite the air raids and rationing of food, clothing and fuel.


On his last weekend at Chequers before returning to the United States, Hopkins brought along a box of American gramophone records. Churchill took to the jazz, jive and Big Band tunes straight away, and the records were still playing at well past midnight. Churchill's Principal Private Secretary, Eric Seal, wrote that he had seen 'the PM walking about, sometimes dancing by himself in time to the music. We all got a bit sentimental and Anglo-American under the influence of a good dinner and the music'
While he was in Britain, Hopkins formed a strong and enduring friendship with Churchill and his admiration for the Prime Minister helped to break down the barriers that stood in the way of Anglo-American cooperation. 'He is the directing force behind the strategy and the conduct of the war in all its essentials,' Hopkins told President Roosevelt. 'He has an amazing hold on the British people of all classes and groups. He has particular strengths both with the military establishment and the working people.'


Churchill was impatient to get on with the action, and he was constantly throwing up new, often eccentric, ideas for pushing the war effort nearer to victory. One scheme was to seize territory in the north of Germany 'so that the enemy might be made to experience war in his own land'. Another of his ideas was to destabilise Nazi-occupied Europe by capturing Oslo, the Norwegian capital, so depriving Hitler of his 'first great achievement'. More feasible was Churchill's proposal for the Special Operations Executive. This clandestine organisation, better known as SOE, appealed to Churchill's sense of the unorthodox. Churchill established the organisation on 14 July, 1940, to coordinate the work of resistance groups within the occupied territories by supplying the secret agents, training and materials,they needed for sabotage and subversion. Churchill described SOE as 'a new instrument of war' and one which, he predicted, would 'set Europe ablaze'. The phrase was flamboyant, but it proved an appropriate metaphor. In France, the main scene of SOE operations, the Resistance staged widespread disruption early on D-Day, 6 June, 1944, as a prelude to the Allied invasion of Normandy. Roads, railways, bridges and communications were sabotaged and German forces heading for the beaches had to run a gauntlet of ambushes, where snipers felled soldiers and machine-gun nests left vehicles wrecked and burning. In 1940 and the early months of 1941 the parameters of the war expanded. In North Africa, the British army became engaged in a : eo prevent German forces and their who had declared war on 10 June, 1940, from seizing the vital Suez Canal in Egypt. In May 1941 the British liberated Ethiopia from more than five years of Italian occupation. Nearer home, Churchill and his Cabinet watched with concern a sinister pattern that was developing in south-east Europe.
On 9 January, 1941, Churchill received a decoded message revealing that the Luftwaffe was preparing for an invasion of Greece. An Italian invasion the previous October had gone badly and the Germans were stepping in to rescue their allies. In March 1939 Britain had promised to help the Greeks if they were attacked. Churchill and his "War Cabinet were anxious to make good the promise, but there were difficulties. In North Africa, the German Afrika Korps, led by General Erwin Rommel, was achieving spectacular success in the Western Desert. Withdrawing men and supplies for Greece could compromise British efforts to safeguard Egypt and the Suez Canal.


Churchill was cautious. 'Do not consider yourself obligated to the Greek enterprise, if in your hearts you feel it will be another Norwegian fiasco,' he told Anthony Eden and General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Middle East. 'If no good plan can be made, please say so. But of course,' Churchill added slyly, 'you know how valuable success would be.' As he had hoped, plans to send aid to Greece went ahead. Meanwhile, a pro-Nazi bloc was taking shape in south-east Europe. Hungary and Romania allied themselves to Nazi Germany in 1940 and Bulgaria was soon to follow. Yugoslavia completed the quartet on 24 March, 1941 when Dr Dragisha Cvetkovic, its pro-Nazi Prime Minister, signed a treaty with Hitler. The treaty was repudiated two days later when royalist insurgents overthrew Cvetkovic. Hitler, enraged, gave orders that the Yugoslavs should be brought to heel 'with merciless brutality'. The German forces saw to it that his orders were carried out, and on 17 April, after eleven days' resistance, the Yugoslav Army surrendered. Their brief struggle had cost them 90,000 prisoners, the deaths of thousands of civilians and the almost complete devastation of their capital, Belgrade.
The Greeks suffered a similar fate. On 6 April the Luftwaffe struck the Greek port of Piraeus, where British military supplies were being unloaded: six ships were sunk and another, loaded with 200 tons of high explosives, blew up at its moorings. Piraeus was devastated. Elsewhere, the German forces moved swiftly through the Greek defence lines, capturing Salonika on 9 April and forcing the withdrawal of the Greek 1st Army and its surrender on 21 April.
The British forces in Greece were now in a desperate position. Some 75,000 men under the command of General Henry Maitland Wilson were obliged to make a rapid retreat. Plans were
[Churchill had an entourage of secret agents during his visit to "Washington DC on 26 December, 1941, when he addressed both houses of Congress for the first time. That night, the enormous emotional strain and great physical exertions of two years of war leadership caught up with Churchill and he suffered his first heart attack. Fortunately it was mild.]
[During his visit to North America in 1941, Churchill addressed a joint session of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa on 30 December. In his speech, Churchill referred to the gloomy predictions made by French generals in 1940 that 'In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken!' To this he retorted: 'Some chicken! Some neck!']
laid to evacuate the troops to the island of Crete -a British base since 1940. But the Luftwaffe prevented the troops from making an easy getaway. Stukas, the much-feared German war planes, dive-bombed and machine-gunned the transports for a week, killing thousands of men. In all, 50,000 troops were evacuated to Crete.

The Germans followed them in overwhelming numbers, landing a total of 22,000 troops on the island after 20 May. The exhausted, ill-equipped
defenders held out for more than a week until the Royal Navy arrived to evacuate them. In the process, the navy lost more than 2000 men, and 5000 soldiers had to surrender to the Germans.
The disastrous seven-week campaign in Greece and Crete badly damaged British morale and prestige. Then came further bad news from North Africa, where the lightning German advance of Rommel's Afrika Korps had pushed British forces back across the desert to the Egyptian frontier.
Churchill put an optimistic interpretation on the downturn in British fortunes. Broadcasting from Chequers, he reassured the nation of ultimate victory. 'No prudent and far-seeing man can doubt that the eventual and total defeat of Hitler and Mussolini is certain, in view of the respective resolves of the British and American democracies.'
Beneath the facade of confidence, Churchill was on edge. On 27 April, when Major-General John Kennedy, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, suggested over dinner at Chequers that the British Army might have to evacuate Egypt, Churchill became so incensed that his other guests had difficulty calming him down. Ten days later Churchill's mood darkened further when he was criticised in the Commons over Egypt, the fiasco in Greece and Crete, and German successes in the vital Battle of the Atlantic. In the three months from March to June 1941, by Luftwaffe air action alone, 167,000 tons of shipping per month were being sunk. Churchill demanded a vote of confidence. He won it by 447 votes for, to three against. It was a decisive margin, but the experience was unsettling.
In the summer of 1941, Churchill was distracted from criticism at home by a new development: the Russo-German non-aggression pact, signed in 1939, was about to be torn up. For some time, the Germans had been massing troops, tanks and armament on their border with Russia. 
Now, the alliances in the Balkans and the conquests of Greece and Yugoslavia came into focus: the Germans had been protecting their southern flank as a prelude to their invasion of Russia.
At 4:00am on 22 June, 1941, around 150 German divisions crossed into Russian territory along a line stretching nearly 1250 miles northwards from the Black Sea to the Arctic Circle. Britain was no longer fighting alone. Yet, if the Soviets lost, as Churchill believed they would, it could give Hitler the chance to concentrate the whole military might of Germany on another invasion of Britain.
[Luftwaffe bombers dropped 503 tons of high explosives and 881 incendiary canisters on Coventry during a ten-hour raid on 14 November, 1940, devastating St Michael's Cathedral and the area around it.]

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