Churchill Becomes Prime Minister (May 10, 1940)

Figure 1.--.

Just as the NAZI blow in the West came, Prime Minister Chamerlain resigned. His position in Parliament had become untenable. "Go! In the name of God go!" shouted one MP. It was expected that Foreign Minister Lord Halifax would replace him. But Halifax declined. It is not know why he declined nor has he ever explained. Perhaps he realized he was not up to the job. Instead the Commons turned to Churchill. Later Churchill wrote, "At last I had the authority to give direction over the whole scene. 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." Never has a British prome minister taken office in such a crisis. The news was bad and would get worse. Ambassador Bullit in Paris and Ambassador Kennedy in London cabled Washington with reports that got worse day by day. Neither had confidence in Churchill or the British. As the weight of the NAZI offensive fell upon France, Churchill atempted as best he could to keep the French in the War.

Norway (April 1940)

The first campaign between the Germans and Allies was Norway and it did no go well for the Allies. . The Germans in a surprise move seized control of Oslo. Further north it was more of a fight. The Germans sacrificed their destroyer force. Hitler was ready to pull out, but Jodl advised him to see how the fighting unfolded. Evenrually it was the Allies who pulled out just as the larger issue was to be decided in the West. A parlimentary debate over the Norwegian campaign evolved into a no-condfidence vote on Chamberlain's leadership.

Prime Minister Chamberlain Resigns

Prime Minister Nevile Chamberlain had enormous influence in the Conservative Party and with the British public. It was his polivcies that were widely preceived to have brought Britain out of the Depression. Chsamberlain tried to negotiate with Hitler. This attemp at appeasment was in part a reflection of weakness. But Chamberlain's horror of war and desire to avoid it was another powerful factor. Chamberlain found himself in the position of leading Britain in a war that he had done his best to prevent. The British public largely agreed with this approach, and greeted him as a hero when he terurned from the Munich Conference with a plege from Herr Hitler. It is hard to criticise a good man who worked for peace. But Chamberlain persued policies that not only brought war, but were to imperil the very survival of Britain if not Western civilization. He hardly inspired confidence as a war leader. Chamberlai's disgust with war made him unsuited for war leadership. Thebad news from Norway had sealed his fate. His own Conservative Party increasingly questioned his leadership. The Labour Party was unwilling to join any government with him at the head. With the failure of the expedition to Norway, the debate in the Commons sharply criticised the Prime Minister. MP Leo Amery savaged Chamberlain's leadership. Finally in his conclusion he quoted the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Long Parliament; "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go" (May 7). Chamberlain survived the non-confidence vote, but the margin was surprisingly close. In consulations, it became clear that he would have to resign. Just as the NAZI blow in the West was about to come, Prime Minister Chamerlain resigned. His position in Parliament had become untenable. Chamberlain was a broken man, his health deteriorating and his dreams of a peaceful world shattered. To his credit, while he did not favor Churchills selection, he did support him and worked well with him. He remained in the cabinent and performed one critical service for Britain by backing Churchill when Halifax suggested approaching Hitler. He was diagnosed with cancer and underwent an operation (July). He resigned from government (October 3). He died (November 9).

Lord Halifax

Lord Halifax was a leading figure in the governing Conservative Party. There were really only two fifures in the Conservative Party with the status to replace Chamberlain--Lord Halifax and Winston Churchill. Halifx was the Fioreign Secretary and had the support within the Prty to be primeminister. He held numerous government posts in the 1920s and 30s, including Viceroy of India. He met Hitler before Chamberlain as Britain was persuing all available channels to overt war. Reich Minister Hermann Göring had invited him to Germany, purportedkly to attend a hunting exhibition (November 1937). During this trip he met Hitler. Halifax did not create a favorable impression. Mistaking Hitler for a footman, he almost handed his overcoat to him. Hitler created an impression on Halifax by explaining in horific detail how he would have handled the rebelious Indians. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden resigned becaused Chamberlain was determined to persue a policy of appeasement with Hitler. Chamberlain replaced Eden with Halifax. It was expected that Foreign Minister Lord Halifax would replace Chamberlain. Halifax as Foreign Minister had supported Chamberlain's attempt at appeasing Hitler. He also had failed to preceive how Germany had managed to court the Soviet Union after Munich and the strength of the Italian relationship. Looking back it is difficult to see why there was so much support for Hallifax. He had a considerable resume, but had no notable suucess in these posts. Halifax ruled himself out in the consideration for a new prime minister. It is not know for sure why he declined nor has he ever explained. Perhaps he realized he was not up to the job. He told Chamberlain who wanted him rather than Churchill that it would be difficult to serve as primeminister from the Lords. Perhaps he saw that Churchill from the Ciommons would emerge as the principal leader.

Churchill Chosen (May 10, 1939)

Halifax's withdrawl from consideration cleared the way for Churchill. Churchill had for years been warning about the NAZI threat. Warnings that were ignored by Balfour and Chamberlain. When the War began, Chamberlain brought Churchill into government as Forst Lord of the Admiralty. The Commons turned to Churchill who proceeded to form a coalition government with the Labour Party. Later Churchill wrote, "At last I had the authority to give direction over the whole scene. 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." Never has a British prime minister taken office in such a crisis. The news was bad and would get worse. Ambassador Bullit in Paris and Ambassador Kennedy in London cabled Washington with reports that got worse day by day. Neither had confidence in Churchill or the British. As the weight of the NAZI offensive fell upon France, Churchill atempted as best he could to keep the French in the War.

Blitzkrieg: France (May-June 1940)

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare. The Panzers surrounded the Belgian Army which King Leopold III surrendered. The BEF was within Hitler's grasp. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. The collapse of France after only a few weeks was a disaster of emense proportions. It was the French Army that had provided the bulk of the allied War Western Front in World War I. The German victory was not accomplished with massivelyu superior numbers or weaponry. In fact they had fewer men and tanks. What they had was a superior tactical doctrine. The Germans were amazed to find, for example, that French tanks were not even equipped with radios, and a more disciplined fighting force. NAZI propaganda began to describe Hitler as " Der grösste Feldherr Allerzeiten " (the greatest field commander of all time). [Davidson, p. 483.]

Cable to Roosevelt (May 15, 1939)

Five days after becoming Prime Minister and as the NAZI Western offensive was unfolding, Churchill refering to himself "Former Naval Person,. wrote to President Roosevelt, "As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. The enenemy have a marked preponderance in the air, and their new technique [Blitzkrieg] is making a deep impression on the French. .... The small countries are simply smashed up, one by one, like matchwood. We must expect, although it is not yet certain, that Mussoloini will hurry into share the loot of civilization. We expect to be attacked here ourselves, both from the air and by parachute and air-borne troops in the near future, and we are getting ready for them. If necessary, 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 nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a compleletly subjicated Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can beat. ...."

Sedan (May 16)

The German Panzers broke through the French lines at Sedan (May 16). This began the drive that would reach the Channel, cutting off the Belgians, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and the French First Army.

Ambassador Kennedy

President Roosevelt chose Kennedy for the ambassidorial post before the outbreak of war. He owed Kennedy an important post, but did not want to give him a cabinet post. The choice was in part to tweak Chamberlain. It was a chouce that Roosevelt would come to regret. Kennedy had strong isolationist sentiments, although his desire to maintain aelastionship with Roosevelt restrained him from speaking out forcefully. Despite his Irish Catholic origins, Kennedy with his attractive family was very popular in Britain. He developed a close association with Primeminister Chamberlain. Ambassador Kennedy, the arch defeatist, was close to Primeminister Chamberlain, the arch appeaser. Neither cared for Churchill or shared his view of Hitler and the NAZIs before the War. Here Kennedy's unapolgetic anti-Semitism was undoubtedly a factor. Ambassador Kennedy had no confidence in Churchill. He wrote in his diary, "I couldn't help but think as I sat there talking to Churchill how ill-conditioned he looked and the fact that there was a tray with plenty of liquor on it alongside him and he was drinking a scotch highball, which I thought indeed not the first one he had drunk that night, that, after all, the affairs of Great Britain might be in the hands of the most dynamic individual in Great Britain but certainly not in the hands of the best judgement in Great Bitain." (May 15, 1940) Accounts from the White House at this stage of the War noted President Roosevelt making references to Churchill's drinking. We suspect that Kennedy had help create that impression, although he was not the only person to comment on Churchill's drinking. Churchill for his part blamed Kennedy for conveying this impression. Kennedy was convinced the situation was lost. He confided to his wife, "The English will fight on to the end but I don't think they can stand up to the bombing indefinitely. What will happen then is probably a dictated peace with Hitler probably getting the British Navy, and we will find ourselves in a terrible mess. My Gof how right I have been on my predictions. I wish I'd been wrong." (May 20, 1940) [Smith] Kennedy was not the only contemporary obsever reaching this conclusion. Fortunately, Churchill at an early stage had developed direct communications with President Roosevelt.

Dunkirk (May 26-June 2, 1940)

As the Panzers cut accross France, the BEF was within Hitler's grasp. The Panzers were only a few miles south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that he hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, aneeded pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as akmost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the corps of the future British Army that would play such an important role in the War. All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost.

Britain's Decession (May 28, 1940)

Britain faced what many felt was certain defeat. At this time Britain could have made a deal with Hitler. Lord Halifax thought Britain had little choice. Halifax was Britain's Foreign Secretary and had supported Chamberlain's policy of apeasement to avoid warwith Germany. One of the unansweed questions about the War is why Halifax did not replace Chaberlain as primeminister. He was next in line and could have been primeminister rather than Churchill, yet he declined. No one knows why. Some believe he thought he was not up to the task. It may well be that as the German Wester offensive fell (May 10) that he did not want to be the primeminister presiding over a defeated Britain. Hitler admired the British. Hewould have offered an arrangement more attractive than that offered France. Britain could have kept its fleet and much of the Empire. Hitler in the end did not wantwar ith Britain. He wanted to secure his western front so he could fovcus on the Sovit Union in the east. Churchill refused, however, to treat with Hitler and the NAZIs. He was determined to resist as dire as the circumstances. Halifax and others in the war Cabinent believed that Britain should deal with Hitler. Churchill was narroiwly able to bring the War Cabinent with him. There would be no British Vichy. There was some support in Britain for reaching an understanding with Hitler. Some of the moneyed class saw Hitler and the NAZIs as a way of controlling the working class and confronting Bolshevism. In the end Britain would be saved, not by the gentry, but the minors, workers, and common people often living in squalid city slums. [Jesson] That commitment was to be shown by London's East End when the Blitz commenced. Churchill after the RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe and defeat was no longer eminent, replaced Halifax with a close ally, Anthony Eden. Halifax was disposed of by being made ambassador to the United States, a deft political move.

Britain Alone

From a distance of several decades we tend to see a supremely confident Churchill. We are moved by his defiant speeches. And of course we have the advantage of knowing that Britain did survive and triumph. This is not, however, a luxury Churchill had immediately after Dunkirk. It was not at all clear at the time that Britain would survive. Churchill flew to Paris to try to bolster the reeling French. He saw it was a lost cause. France was broken and the Panzers were moving south toward Paris. Churchill meeting with General Hastings Ismay on his staff announced, more in desperation than defiance, "We fight alone." Ismay replied, "We'll win the Battle of Britain." Churchill's response was, "You and I will be dead in three months time." [Reynolds] This was not view Churchill ever allowed to be seen pubically and it reflected the desperation of the moment more than his real conviction . That was understandable immediately after the fall ofFrance. Churchill did not want it revealed even after the War. He thought it would affect his image. It well might. It shows how desperate Britain's plight was. It also humanizes the man and I think makes his defiance to Hitler even more admirable. After the Germans entered Paris, the French sined an Armistice. Britain was alone. The future was bleak. In World War I the British with French and Russian assistance barely stopped the Germans until America entered the War. Now Britain had to do it on her own. Many in Europe and America thought Britain lost. Churchil writes, "After the first forty days we were alone, with victorious Germany and Italy engaged in na mortal attack upom us, with Soviet Russia a hostile neutral actively aiding Hitler, and Japan an unknowable menace." [Churchill, p. 230.] .

Operation Sea Lion (June-September 1940)

The German Plan to invade Britain after the fall of France was code named Oprtation Sea Lion. The BEF had managed to escape capture at Dunkirk, but had to abandon their heavy equiment. Tghis mean that while Britain still had its army, it was an unarmed army. The American Naval Attaché reported that the Britih were no more prepared to defend the coast than Long Island. The British asked for surplus World War I destroyers, but President Roosevelt was not yet ready to authorize this. He did ask General Marshall to find surplus arms, mostly small arms, that could be rushed to Britain. [Freidel, p. 336.] The Gernmans were also unprepared. The Wehrmacht had not anticipated the dimensions of their victory in France. There had been no planning for an invasion of Britain. Bliztkrieg was essentially modern warfare, rapid land movement supported by aircraft. There was, however, no naval component. The Panzers stopped at the Channel ports. The Kriegsmarine received less support than the other two services. It did not have the capability to tke on the Royal Navy for a Channel crossing. And Hitler was unsure of the operation from the beginning. He confided in Admiral Raeder, "On land I am a hero. At sea I am a coward." And with France defeated, he wanted to ebnd the war in the West and prepare for his ulimate objective, seizing Lenbenraum in the East. He was still unaware how the his bad faith over Czechoslovakia had changed Britain, even appeasers like Chamberlain. Hitler hoped that he could bring about a British Vichy without an invasion. And he was willing to guarantee the Empire if Britain would accept a German-dominated continent. His vision was in part racial, seeing in Briain Aryan stiock that would eventually come to terms with Aryan Germany. It is not clear to what extent Hitler ever seriously contemplated an invasion. Here historians disagree. Some believe he simply wanted to threaten the British, asuming that they would agree to seek terms. Hitler believed that at least threantening invasion would force the issue. With France defeted, Hitler ordered his generals to organize the invasion of Britain.Without the needed naval forces, the Luftwaffe would be used to prepare for the invasion. Air superority over the channel and southeaster England would have to be achieved. Hitler ordered the Lufwaffe to destroy the RAF. Göring assured him that this could be easily accomplished.

Personal Memmories

A British reader tells us, "It is strange how certain events in ones childhood are vivid memories. Although only 9 years old, I remember the announcment of Chamberlain's resignation and Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister as if it was yesterday. I was in-bed with Measles. I guess because of the war situation, my mother had put the radio on. In those days we had only one radio in the house, but my father had rigged up speakers in the kitchen and upstairs landing. (Very early 'Surround Sound' I guess.) I was bored with a book, and listened to the news. It was an important day for me -- one of great disappointment. Because of my illness I missed seeing the American film 'The Wizard of Oz", which was on at the local cinema. Mother took my brother while my grandmother stayed to look after me and my young sister. I did get to see it later. I of course didn't appreciate the seriousness of all these events. It was rather like when my brother and I were evacuated to America. It was an adventure. I do remember being frightened during one air-raid. It was more apprehension than beacuse of any noise. In fact I don't think there was any noise. Possibly even a false alarm. But we were huddled in our indoor shelter, under the kitchen table, and mother hugged me."


Churchill, Winston S. Memoirs of the Second World War (New York: Bonanza, 1958), 1065p.

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Smith, Amanda. ed. Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (Viking: New York, 2001), 764p.


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Created: 2:06 AM 7/19/2004
Last updated: 1:36 PM 7/21/2011