Mid-1940 would prove to be the darkest hour for the British people. The German army was rampaging across Europe. The entire British Expeditionary Force was surrounded and vulnerable, stranded in France with no hope of victory. Time was running out for the allies. Then a saviour stepped into the breach…
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill had experienced a long and turbulent political career up until 1940. He had experienced victory and defeat in equal measure. Born into an aristocratic family, and the son of a radical Conservative Lord, Winston was certainly destined for great things. Walking around his ancestral home, Blenheim Palace, a site bequeathed to his ancestor John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, one could easily believe that Winston was born for office. It did not happen in such an easy manner.
Churchill began life as a soldier and war correspondent. He fought in The Second Boer War before joining the Conservatives as a politician. He would defect twice, once to serve in Asquiths Liberal government and then to return to the Tory’s. “Anyone can rat,” Churchill said in response to the jeers of The Commons as he returned to the blue, “But it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”.
“Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”.
In Asquith’s government, Churchill had seemed unfit for war. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he oversaw The Gallipoli campaign of 1916. Possibly the most disastrous military foray in modern British history, the allies failed to secure the Dardanelles strait and allow the Russians a secure route into Europe. 120,000 Tommy’s were dead or wounded and Churchill had no choice but to resign. He left to fight on the western front, commanding a battalion of Fusiliers.
He returned in the 1920’s as part of the Tory government. It’s defeat in the 1929 election saw Churchill enter ‘the wilderness years’. He no longer held office and his brand of politics was out of favour in Whitehall. As a backbencher, Churchill concentrated on his own literary exploits and campaigned ardently for Britain to rearm herself against the growing shadow of Nazi Germany. He was largely unheard.
Churchill continued to, somehow muscle his way into political life. He advised Edward VIII during the succession crisis and the monarchs controversial marriage to divorcee Wallace Simpson.
It was his persistent voice and political involvement from the outside, as it were, that saw him take a step into British politics that would change the world.
World War II.
The declaration of war was a scary concept for Britain. Armament had been slow and stagnant. The British army had developed very little since 1918. Whilst Hitler’s superior war machine smashed through the continent, Britain slid with a pathetic flop into a war they were wholly unprepared for.
War broke out in 1939. Churchill was re-assigned to the post of First Lord of the Admiralty. His experience would be valuable as Britain prepared to move its armies into France and assist their allies in defending the Maginot Line. The Germans were far superior to the allies, their tactical brilliance, sleek, fast tank divisions and coordinated blitzkrieg attacks saw them cut through the heavily wooded Ardeness on May 10th 1940. The allies could not have predicted an attack through such a heavily wooded area, filled with hills and craggy terrain, it was surely impenetrable?
On that same day, Neville Chamberlain resigned. He’d lost a vote of confidence after his repeated failings to make any concrete decisions in relation to the war and there was always a suggestion that he would still prefer to make peace. Churchill invited to take up the post of Prime Minister by George VI himself. His appointment couldn’t have come at a better time…
By the 23rd the British army was in full retreat and isolated on the beaches of northern France. The French army was defeated whilst the British were facing Luftwaffe bombing raids and impending capture. They crowded on the beach of Dunkirk and waited.
Defeat would see all of Europe fall to Hitler.
Churchill addressed the house to absolute silence. His first speech to the MP’s saw Churchill claim that he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This, and his talk of “victory” at all costs, were met with scorn.
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
Talk of surrender plagued Whitehall. The war cabinet told Churchill that it was his only option. Peace was better than defeat and there could not be another war on the scale of 1914. To make an agreement with Hitler was the way forward. The Italians were willing to mediate between the two states. It was humiliating peace talks or imminent and absolute defeat. Churchill had to choose.
The free world sat poised on a knife edge, overlooking the crossroads of history.
Operation Dynamo and ‘that’ speech.
A desperate mission was launched to rescue the stranded British troops on the 27th of May. The navy had one active cruiser and eight destroyers. They were in no position to ferry over 300,000 troops to safety before the Wehrmacht broke through. The navy issued a plea to the merchant ships and private small boats of the British people. They answered the call of patriotism.
Over 800 fishing boats, yachts, trawlers and tug boats brought the allied troops to safety, receiving cover from the RAF who fought viciously against the German Luftwaffe to control the air. By the 4th of June, the rescue mission was complete. The French rearguard, who had been fighting to slow the German advance at Lille surrendered. France was out of the war. The British had been bloodied, with 65,000 dead and their tanks abandoned. Down but not out.
Churchill entered the House of Commons as the operation came to a close. The events at Dunkirk still constituted an unprecedented disaster for British military practise.
The Prime Minister then embarked on an address that would change history. The words he spoke that day moved many in the house to tears. Sent shivers down the spine of British citizens. Inspired the Empire to fight back even as the stranglehold of Hitler’s armies surrounded them.
The ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech would come to define Churchill. Its rhetoric would inspire the allies to continue a desperate war effort. It inspired the nation and has stayed the test of time to inspire biopics, storytellers and politicians ever since.
“…we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, 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…”
Cheers rang out in The Commons. Churchill walked away.
In Britains darkest hour, he stood as a voice of resilience and calm. Whilst the odds were stacked against him and the men around him called for his resignation, peace talks and defeat stared him in the face. Churchill called out, in his iconic baritone, that victory was the only option.