Tuesday, July 23, 2013


FINEST HOUR  -- Sr. Wiston Churchill

Back in power as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1935, and Prime Minister in 1940, Chur,chil'l needed all his resolve for the awesome tasks that lay ahead. He had to overcome the defeatist attitudes of others and lead the nation through a fight for its very survival. By mid 1940, Britain was standing alone before the might of Nazi Germany.
Winston Churchill entered the First Sea Lord's office at the Admiralty at 6:00pm on 3 September, 1939, seven hours after Britain declared war. Nearly 25 years had passed since he left the Admiralty in 1915. 'So it was that I came again to the room I had quitted in pain and sorrow ... ' he wrote later. 'Once again, we must fight for life and honour against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it!'
Although daunting, it was an exciting prospect for Churchill. At 65, he had reached an age at which other men could expect to enjoy the sunset years that followed a lifetime of work. But Churchill's real work was only just beginning.
The challenge he faced in his second term at the Admiralty was formidable. He soon discovered that Britain was dangerously ill-prepared for war. Factories had not been mobilised fast enough. There were critical shortfalls in the supply of munitions, weaponry, up-to-date equipment for the army and modern aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Shipbuilding for the navy had been neglected, creating a shortage of capital ships to provide escorts for battleships.

Meanwhile, in Poland, the Germans were demonstrating how quick and crushing their victory could be. Six armoured and eight motorised divisions smashed the antiquated Polish forces while the Luftwaffe destroyed the railways and shot the Polish air force out of the sky. On 17 September the Soviets activated their non-aggression pact with Germany, and Soviet forces invaded from the east. By the end of September, the country had been carved up between them.

On 1 October Churchill made his first wartime broadcast. He spoke of the fate that had overtaken Poland which had a history of being invaded and conquered by Germany and Russia. 'Poland,' he told his audience, 'has been again overrun by two of the great powers who held her in bondage for 150 years but were unable to quench the spirit of the Polish nation. The heroic defence 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 which remains a rock.'


Churchill galvanised the Admiralty staff with a constant flow of ideas. He was willing to consider any measure, any theatre of conflict, any even half-promising idea that might enable Britain to put up effective resistance to the Nazis. 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 defences, to divert their attention from Poland. Eight days later, he was fielding a plan to send two battleships to bombard the German Baltic coast. A week later Churchill was proposing to cut off the Germans' supply of Swedish iron ore, which was transported via the Lapland Railway and the port of Narvik. 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.
Churchill's scheme had the backing of the Admiralty but he came up against resistance from Chamberlain. Chamberlain'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, Churchill always appeared confident, though he never promised miracle solutions. His speeches in Parliament and broadcasts were realistic and hopeful but also defiant. His broadcast of 1 October, 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,' Churchill began. 'It would seem that

[Churchill on the Outbreak of War, 3 September  1939  --  We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us, or the temerity of the ordeal.... We must expect many disappointments and many unpleasant surprises .... The Prime Minister said it was a sad day, and that is indeed true, but at the present time there is another note which may be present, and that is a feeling of thankfulness that, if these great trials were to come upon our island, there is a generation of Britons here now ready to prove itself not unworthy ... of those great men, the fathers of our land, who laid the foundations of our laws and shaped the greatness of our country.]
the U-boat attack upon the life of the British Isles has not so far proved successful. It is true that when they sprang out upon us and we were going about our ordinary business ... they managed to 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 scale. 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, Churchill warned, might last for as long as three years, but Britain would fight to the end, 'convinced that we are the defenders of civilisation and freedom'.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Churchill did not shy away from, danger,. When, on 5 October, 1939, Adolf Hider indicated his readiness to negotiate peace with Britain and France in exchange for recognition of German dominance over Poland and Czechoslovakia, some ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, were tempted to bargain. Churchill refused even

[November 1939 Churchill met with General John Gort (centre), Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, which was defending the Franco-Belgian border. The BEF was formed after the Boer War as a small unit for rapid overseas deployment. But by May 1940, it had 10 infantry divisions, a tank brigade and an RAF detachment of some 500 aircraft.]
to consider negotiations unless reparations were made to the conquered peoples and their 'effective life and sovereignty' were restored.
Churchill was determined that the war against Germany should be prosecuted with steady resolve. But other Cabinet ministers  seemed unable to commit themselves to a definite course of action. They vacillated over Churchill's plan to mine Norwegian waters and put British military units ashore at Narvik until January 1940, when, four months after
Churchill had first suggested it, the Cabinet finally rejected his scheme.
Churchill was incensed. On 15 January, he wrote to Lord Halifax of the 'awful difficulties which our machinery of war-conduct presents to positive action. I see such immense walls of prevention ... that I wonder whether any plan will have a chance of climbing over them ... victory will never be found in taking the line of least resistance.'
The supine attitude of the Chamberlain government was no more acceptable to the British public than it was to Winston Churchill. Mrs Violet Pearman - 'Mrs P', as Churchill called her - had worked as his secretary before the war and she expressed a widespread opinion when she . wrote to him: 'I think the country relies on you ... to express national feeling in the only way that Germany understands, standing up to the bully and proving him the coward that he is.'


Chamberlain appeared incapable of 'standing up to the bully' himself. On 2 April, 1940, he gave a speech suggesting that the Nazi Fiihrer had waited too long to act after his conquest of Poland, while the pace of Britain's rearmament was on the increase. Hitler, Chamberlain claimed, 'has missed the bus'. Events were to prove otherwise. A week earlier, Churchill's much-delayed Narvik initiative had at last been sanctioned. The campaign was due to start on 8 April, but it did not proceed as expected. The mining of Norwegian waters went ahead, but the next day, on 9 April, German forces landed at several places along the Norwegian coast. Neighbouring Denmark was overcome the same day. Meanwhile, German airborne forces captured Oslo, the Norwegian capital, and the port of Stavanger. British and French troops managed to get ashore at Narvik, and the Norwegians, with the help of the Allied forces, put up dogged resistance, but their efforts were doomed to failure. The Allied enterprise had come too late.
Churchill was infuriated that the Narvik expedition had been sabotaged by indecision and delay. He was not alone. On 29 April, a group of

[In January 1940, Churchill met the French General Alphonse Georges (right), who was in command of the Northeast front in France and was responsible for liaison with the British forces in the area. Churchill was concerned about the inferior equipment vised by the French army and the nonchalant attitude shown by its commanders.]

senior Members of Parliament confronted Halifax with a strong protest about the 'want of initiative' the government had shown not only over Norway, but in every other area of policy since the war had begun. Even Chamberlain's long-sanding and loyal supporters turned against him. Thoroughly raided, Chamberlain tried to cling on to his position by
telling the House of Commons that Britain retained the 'balance of advantage' in Norway.
This was demonstrably untrue and on 7 May, when he arrived at the Commons to take part in a debate on Norway, Chamberlain was jeered with ribald cries of 'Missed the bus! Missed the bus!'

After two days of stormy debate, the government scraped a narrow victory, but the verdict proved unacceptable. There was uproar in the Commons and loud demonstrations against the Prime Minister - an unprecedented event in Parliament. Chamberlain could no longer ignore the calls for his resignation.


Already, Churchill 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 was unwilling, and had his own suggestion: 'Winston,' he said, 'would be a better choice.' Then suddenly the picture changed. On 10 May the German armies invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and France. In a repeat performance of their Polish campaign : nine months earlier, the German blitzkrieg began pounding, strafing and bombing the three countries into submission. Chamberlain decided, and Churchill loyally agreed, that in this new crisis a change of leadership was unwise.

When the news spread that Chamberlain was gcirg 10 remain in place, many Conservative MPs were outraged. But it was the Labour opposition that decided the issue. In a Cabinet meeting, at which Chamberlain presided, he received a message that no member of the Labour Party would serve under him as Prime Minister. Less than an hour later, Chamberlain tendered his resignation to George VI at Buckingham Palace.
That evening, Churchill was summoned to the palace. 'I suppose you don't know why I have sent for you,' the king said in a bantering

1 October, 1939 .....
We could have wished that the Russian armies should be standing on their present line as the friends and allies of Poland, instead of as invaders .... I cannot forecast to you the actions of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest or the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States ... That would be contrary to the historical life-interest of Russia.]

tone. Churchill, on the brink of attaining the summit of all his ambitions, gave a similarly artless reply. 'Sir,' he told the king, 'I simply couldn't imagine why.' 'I want to ask you to form a government,' the king said with a smile.
[A  1940 poster encourages people to invest their money in war bonds to aid the British war effort. The cost of the war was enormous, consuming 55.3 per cent of national expenditure at its peak in 1943.]

Churchill felt profound relief. 'At last I had authority to give directions 'over the whole scene,' he wrote later. 'I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.'

The challenges awaiting him were stupendous. Every day, Churchill and his 'Grand Coalition' -as he named the all-party government he headed -were confronted by new crises and fresh threats. The forces of Nazi Germany surged through the Low Countries and France like an irresistible tide.

The Dutch were forced to surrender after only four days, on 14 May. The Belgians clung on, but their situation was increasingly grave.
Churchill had hoped that the seemingly formidable French army would be able to hold off the Nazi blitzkrieg., but their defences were failing and they were rapidly losing the will to fight on. Despite the proximity of the fighting and the personal risk involved, Churchill 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. However, all Churchill's urgings proved useless. The French will to win faded fast and Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister, informed Churchill that his government might shortly have to ask the Germans for an armistice. At this point, Churchill's emotions proved too much for him: he sat listening to Reynaud with tears streaming down his face.

[On 8 May, 1940, two days before he became Frime Minister, Churchill (left) walked to the Houses of Tarliament for a debate on the situation in war-torn Norway, accompanied by Admiral Sir Alfred Dudley Found (right), the First Sea Lord.]


The fall of France would have grave consequences for Britain, exposing the island to the threat of invasion by forces poised less than 21 miles across the English Channel. Churchill never shirked the truth, however terrifying it might be, when he spoke of the prospects that lay ahead. 'It would be foolish ... to disguise the gravity of the hour ... we must expect that as soon as stability is reached [in France], the bulk of that hideous apparatus of aggression ... will be turned upon us .... There will be many men and many women in this island who, when the ordeal comes upon them, as come it will, will feel comfort and even a pride, that they are sharing the perils of our lads at the Front - soldiers, sailors and airmen — and are drawing away from them a part ... of the onslaught they have to bear .... Our task is not only to win the battle, but to win the war.'

At this stage Churchill was still dogged by-some Members of Parliament who disagreed with his tenacious attitude. One of them was Neville Chamberlain, who was now Lord President of the Council. He told a secret War Cabinet meeting that 'while we would fight to the end to preserve our independence, we were ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us.' Churchill was furious: 'Nations which went down fighting,' he warned the Cabinet 'rose again, but those who surrendered tamely were finished.'

Getting his message of defiance across to the Americans was another difficulty Churchill had to face. Since the end of World War I, more than 20 years previously, the United States had adopted a predominantly isolationist policy. This echoed one of the provisions of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which decreed that the United States

[Churchill looks out to sea from the deck of a Royal Navy destroyer during his visit to a port in the north of England, The exact location of many pictures taken in wartime was not disclosed.]
should not become involved in European wars and political conflicts. Even though the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did not share the unwillingness of many Congressmen to become embroiled in European quarrels, isolationist influence was for the moment too strong to be ignored.
Churchill sent a telegram to Roosevelt on 15 May that set out the situation in Europe in frank terms, while tacitly asking for American aid. 'If necessary', Churchill told Roosevelt, 'we shall continue the war alone, and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realise, Mr President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for

[On the morning of 10 May, 1940, hundreds of German troops were dropped by parachute near Rotterdam, The Hague, Moerdijk and Dortrecht in the Netherlands. They quickly gained control of the country.]
nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness ... '
CHURCHILL went on to request the use of 50 US destroyers from World War I that had been mothballed in American naval shipyards. Although he stressed that these destroyers were crucial to Britain's survival, President Roosevelt refused: his advisers feared that if Britain were overrun, their destroyers would fall into Nazi hands. The next day, on 16 May, the Germans outflanked the concrete and steel fortifications of the Maginot Line, built between 1930 and 1935 along France's border with Germany, and which the French had believed to be impregnable. Churchill then learned that the French were to withdraw their forces altogether. Churchill responded with steadfast defiance and determination in a broadcast on 19 May. 'Is it not the appointed time for all to make the utmost exertions in their power? he said. There now existed ' ... groups of shattered states and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians -upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall!'


The retreat of the French forces had placed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in grave danger. These ten army divisions, which had crossed the Channel to reinforce the French in the first days of the war nine months earlier, were now directly in the path of the advancing German forces. On 24 May, Churchill learned from the contents of captured documents that the Germans were planning to trap the BEF by cutting off their routes of retreat to the English Channel ports. That same night, he sent an urgent order for evacuation: the BEF were to head for the beaches and ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk along the north coast of France. The Royal Navy was ordered to prepare for an ambitious operation to rescue the men of the BEF and bring them home to England. But by 26 May, when the evacuation - codenamed Operation Dynamo - got under way, Dunkirk was the only port that had not yet been captured or which was not endangered by the rapidly encroaching German forces. 
[An emergency Cabinet meeting was held on 10 May, 1940 after the invasion of the Low Countries. Hours later, Chamberlain resigned in favour of Churchill, shown here with Ernest Bevin (left) and Anthony Eden (right). Bevin became Minister of Labour in the new government. Eden was reappointed Foreign Secretary.]

I speak to you for- the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our Empire, of our Allies and above all, of the cause of freedom. A tremendous battle is raging in France and Flanders, The Germans, by a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armoured tanks, have broken through the French defences north of the Maginot Line and strong columns of their armoured vehicles are ravaging the open country .... They have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track. Behind them there are now appearing infantry in lorries and behind them, again, the large masses are moving forward .... We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated ... if the French retain that genius for recovery and counter-attack for which they have so long been famous; and if the British Army shows the dogged endurance and solid fighting power of which there have been so many examples in the past - then a sudden transformation of the scene might spring into being.]
On 27 May, King Leopold III of Belgium asked the Germans for an armistice. This surrender meant that the men of the BEF were now in even greater danger: it removed the Belgian army from the path of the advancing Germans, opening up a dangerous gap on their eastern flank.
As May 1940 drew to a close, the evacuation at Dunkirk began. A mass of so-called 'little ships' - privately owned boats and yachts, paddle steamers and other pleasure craft from English coastal resorts - joined the Royal Navy in rescuing British and French soldiers from piers, jetties and a 10-mile stretch of beaches. Overhead, the German Luftwaffe pulverised the defensive perimeter around Dunkirk and blasted the rescue ships in the English Channel. The RAF claimed to have shot down 394 Luftwaffe planes for the loss of 114 of their own, but the prospects for the BEF remained grim.

[Churchill leaves 10 Downing Street on 10 June, 1940, with his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Brendan Bracken. Clementine disliked Bracken, believing that he encouraged her husband's tendency to boastfulness and hasty judgment, but Bracken's unswerving support of Churchill helped him through his toughest times in office.]

German tanks lined up around the perimeter were preparing to advance on Dunkirk when Hitler halted operations. The Fiihrer's reasons for allowing the British and- French to escape from Dunkirk have remained controversial ever since. His desire for a negotiated peace with Britain is an explanation often given; another is that his commanders were reluctant to risk their tanks in the difficult terrain around Dunkirk. What is certain is that the halt gave precious extra time to strengthen the perimeter, and enabled many thousands of men to get away. By 4 June, when the rescue ended, an astonishing 338,226 British and French soldiers had been transported to England. Apart from 71 heavy artillery pieces and 595 vehicles, all their equipment had to be left behind. Yet it was, as Churchill called it, 'a miracle of deliverance'.


Dunkirk was greeted in Britain as a triumph, and the men of the BEF came home to jubilant crowds. Churchill cautioned against the euphoria and in one of his most stirring speeches urged the nation to remain steadfast in their fight against tyranny. 'We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of victory,' he warned the House of Commons on 4 June. 'Wars are not won by evacuations.' But he continued: 'Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail ... We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.'
[On 26 June, 1940, Churchill stopped to greet two New Zealand soldiers who had recently arrived in Britain. Millions of troops from the dominions and colonies eventually joined in the war.]

[CHURCHILL BROADCAST ON THE FRANCO-GERMAN ARMISTICE, 17 JUNE 1940 --  The news from France is very bad and 1 grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune. Nothing will alter our feelings towards them or our faith that the genius of France will rise again. What has happened in France makes no difference to our actions and purpose ... we shall defend our island home and, with the British Empire, we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted from the brows of mankind.]

Although the United States was still unwilling to intervene, the events unfolding in Europe were beginning to impact upon them. Once the French surrendered, as seemed increasingly likely, the Germans would acquire new submarine bases along the western coast of France, which posed a great threat to Atlantic shipping. The 'battle of the Atlantic' was one of Churchill's greatest concerns.
He called it 'the supreme map of the War' for, if 
it were lost, the vital supply lines to Britain
from America would be choked off, making defeat a certainty. The
depredations of German surface raiders such as the pocket battleship Admiral GrafSpee and the battleship Bismarck made dramatic headlines but the major and continuing threat came from the German U-boats.
'How willingly I would have exchanged a full-scale invasion, for this shapeless, measureless peril,' Churchill wrote. 'This mortal danger to our lifeline gnawed at my bowels.'


The threat to American shipping prompted the United States to ask for British help. The Americans wanted to lease bases in eight colonies of the British Empire in the Americas: Newfoundland, Bermuda, Trinidad, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, St Lucia and British Guiana. Churchill still lacked the 50 destroyers he wanted from the United States, and refused, but he sensed that here was some of the leverage he needed for his underlying goal: to circumvent the isolatiomsts and persuade the United States to enrer the war.
On 17 June, 1940, 11 days after the last soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk, the French asked the Germans for an armistice. The documents were signed on 22 June at Compiegne in France, the same location at which the 1918 armistice had been signed. France was divided the German-controlled north and the one-third of her territory governed by collaborationist Vichy government headed by Philippe Petain in the south. Britain was in her defiance of Germany. There was especially abroad, that Britain seek terms. It would require Churchill's most emphatic denials to dissipate these rumours. At the same time, national morale must be boosted and the British people fortified for the hard road ahead.
'The Battle of France is over,' Churchill had told the House of Commons on 18 June. 'I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation .... The whole fury and ght of the enemy must very soon be turned on Hitler knows that he will have to break us in s island or lose the war. If we can stand up to ., all Europe may be free and the life of the orld may move forward into broad, sunlit pplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, Including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age .... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say "This was their finest hour.'"
[Patriotic posters played animportant role in keeping up morale during World War II. The slogan on this boster came from Churchill's 'blood, toil, tears and nveat' speech on 13 May, 1940: 'Come, then, let us go (orward together with our united strength.']


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