Churchill in Wartime

After the disasters of his earlier political career I described in my last post, by 1939 Winston Churchill had once again managed to rise to prominence within the Conservative party and had gathered some considerable support behind his cause of opposition to the government’s appeasement policy. When Britain was finally dragged into war in September of that year, he found himself once again on the front foot of Westminster politics.

Churchill, as the only person mentally prepared for war, was immediately made First Lord of the Admiralty again, and it was only thanks to Neville Chamberlain’s suddenly horrendous reputation attracting blame like a magnet that prevented him getting the blame for a series of naval disasters. After Germany had successfully invaded Norway and Denmark without a hitch*, despite some fantastically idiotic speeches from Chamberlain concerning Germany’s lack of military strength, Chamberlain was forced out of power and the process of trying to hash together a coalition government began.

[*For some reason, Britain took this as a cue to invade Iceland. Why is something of a mystery.]

Chamberlain’s main ally in pursuing appeasement had been Lord Halifax, and he wanted him to head up the wartime government. The only other major candidate for the job was Churchill, who had built up a sizeable base of support within parliament, and all knew that Halifax’s government would only be able to function with Churchill’s support. Churchill, Halifax, Chamberlain and David Margesson, the Conservative chief whip, met on 10 May 1940 and Chamberlain asked Churchill the pivotal question: would he be willing to serve in a government under Halifax? This put Churchill in a dilemma: saying yes would put the government in the hands of an ineffective, pro-appeasement leader, whilst saying no would split the government down the middle and wreak mayhem at a time when strength and unity were of critical importance. Unsure of what to do, he said nothing. Time ticked by. For two full minutes the silence endured unbroken, the other men present equally unsure what they were supposed to do. Finally, Lord Halifax spoke up, whether for purely political reasons or simply our of sheer embarassment, to make possibly the most important statement in the last century of British history: he suggested that it would be difficult for a member of the House of Lords*, such as himself, to govern effectively as opposed to a member of the House of Commons, effectively ruling himself out of the job. At Chamberlain’s recommendation following that meeting, King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister, and he duly accepted. That pregnant silence would prove to be among the most important two minutes in history.

[*The practice of an elected Prime Minister always coming from the House of Commons is a modern phenomenon not enshrined in law; since she ostensibly chooses who becomes PM, the Queen could in theory just tell a random member of the House of Lords that he was now head of government. That she doesn’t is partly good manners, but mostly because to do so would probably end the British monarchy in under 5 years]

At the time, there were many who thought that, what with Gallipoli and his long history of political failures, the coming of Churchill to power represented the final nail in Britain’s coffin. Unpopular among the MPs and Lord’s alike, the 65 year-old Churchill looked to have all the cards stacked against him. However, Churchill’s drive, energy, superlative public speaking ability and vehement opposition to appeasing the Germans single-handedly changed the face of the war, hardening the opinion of public and parliament alike against the idea of an armistice. In wartime, Churchill was in his element; a natural warmonger whose aggressive tactics were so often disastrous in peacetime, now his pugnacious determination, confidence, and conviction to continue the fight no matter what united the country behind him. It was he who not only organised but inspired the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, in which thousands of small civilian vessels mobilised to take part in Operation Dynamo, evacuating trapped British and French soldiers from the port of Dunkirk in the face of heavy German fire and aerial attack, he whose many inspiring wartime speeches have gone down in history, he who inspired Londoners and RAF pilots alike to survive the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, ensuring the country remained safe from the threat of German invasion. OK, so the ‘heroic’ events of Dunkirk overlooked the fact that it had been a humiliating retreat and the army had left all their weapons behind, but that wasn’t the point; the British were inspired and weren’t going to stop fighting.

One of the most morally ambiguous yet telling events about the spirit of defiance Churchill inspired within Britain came in July 1940; the French Navy was holed up in Algeria, with the British attempting to negotiate a joining of the two fleets. The negotiations went badly and the French refused to join the British fleet- and in response the British opened fire on their allies in order to prevent their ships falling into enemy hands. 1300 lives were lost. In just about any other situation, this would have been an utterly insane act that would only have caused the Allied war effort to collapse amid bitter argument and infighting, but then, with France all but completely overrun by German forces, it was nothing more or less than a simple statement of British intent. Britain were prepared to do whatever it took to fight off the Germans, and the sheer ruthlessness of this act is said to have convinced the USA that Britain had the stomach to continue fighting no matter what. Is this a moment to be proud of? No; it was a shameless slaughter and a fiasco in more ways than one. Did it make its point? Absolutely.

Some expected Churchill to win a landslide in the first post-war elections, but ’twas not to be; even the massive wave of public goodwill towards him was not enough to overcome the public desire for social change as Clement Attlee became the first ever labour Prime Minister in 1945. To be honest, it’s probably a good thing; Attlee’s government gave us the NHS and finally started to dismantle the badly-run, expensive remnants of the British Empire, whilst Churchill’s second term as PM (1951-55) was largely undistinguished save for some more post-Imperial restlessness. Not that it matters; useless though he may have been in peacetime, in war Churchill was every bit the national hero he is nowadays made out to be. Churchill’s great legacy is not just one of not having grown up speaking German, but in many ways he redefined what it meant to be British. Churchill inspired a return to the ‘stiff upper lip’ British stereotype that we are nowadays all so proud of: a living tribute to the idea to standing up and keeping going in the face of adversity. In many ways, what Winston Churchill stood for can be best summarised by simply reciting possibly the most famous of all his many great speeches:

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 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

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Winston

Throughout Britain’s long and chequered history, it has acquired a great deal of heroes, names that have rumbled down the ages. The likes of Boudicca, Alfred the Great and Queen Elizabeth I have (rightly or otherwise) cemented their place in the folklore and culture of our little island- but one stands head and shoulders above all of them. To the eyes of the general public, he is a hero unlike any that our country has produced before or since; he has been voted numerous times as the greatest ever Briton and his name looks set to still be revered centuries from now. I am talking, of course, about Sir Winston Churchill.

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born to an aristocratic family in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (the name comes from his ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and his famous victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704) and, as was fairly customary among his class of people at the time, became an officer in the British Army. After serving in Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa, he turned his attention to politics and became the MP for Oldham in the 1900 general election. It was not a successful tenure, ending four years later when he switched from the Conservative to Liberal parties, but during his time in office a successful speaking tour of the USA not only brought in some much-needed cash (by both Parliamentary and aristocratic standards, Churchill was not a rich man) and demonstrated his superlative ability as a charismatic, powerful orator and public speaker. In 1906 he stood for Parliament again, won the seat, and within two years was promoted to the cabinet of Herbert Asquith. Most of this period of his career, in which he did some of his most significant work in the domestic sphere of government, was spent in the shadow of the political giant of the day, David Lloyd George (who would later go on to redefine the relationship between the state and its people and lead Britain through the second half of WWI), and Churchill’s reputation wouldn’t really start to get going until the onset of the First World War.

Following his somewhat bizarre decision to turn up in Belgium and offer to personally take command of the battle currently raging between the British and German forces, Churchill went back to Britain and actually started doing his job as First Lord of the Admiralty, a job he had acquired in 1911. However, he was forced out of the job within a year after masterminding the ill thought-out and generally disastrous Gallipoli landings. The idea was that, if the British could make a breakthrough in the Balkans, they might be able to force Germany to fight on a third front (even though they had no spare men with which to do so) or else get supplies through to their Russian Allies in the east (even though they had no spare supplies to send). To this end, a group of mostly Australian & New Zealander soldiers (ANZACS) were ordered to land at and attack Gallipoli in Turkey, in the middle of the Mediterranean summer, without any landing craft or maps, and with the entire Turkish army aware they were coming thanks to the small clue of a week’s incessant shelling of the coastline. Utterly exposed and with nowhere to run, the Allies never made it beyond ‘Cape Helles’ in eight months of fighting, and finally retreated at the expense of over 40,000 lives and the Eric Bogle song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.

Churchill’s career was at a nadir; the Conservatives hated him for joining the Liberals, the Gallipoli campaign had caused the public to lose all faith in the Liberal party and the last ever Liberal government was dissolved in 1916 (Lloyd George, a Liberal, headed up a coalition government until the end of the war, but much of his support came from Conservatives and the Liberal party fell to pieces around him after it). It didn’t get much better after the war; Churchill was a vehement warmonger, advocating military intervention in Russia (against the Bolsheviks, which in turn lead to a great deal of resentment between the two nations thereafter) and Iraq whilst the rest of the world had decided that, after the bloodiest and most destructive war in western history, the last thing they needed was another one. He soon lost his seat in Parliament, returned to the Conservatives in 1925 with his tail between his legs, became Chancellor, ruined the country’s economy in a disastrous attempt to return to the gold standard, suggested that striking miners be machine gunned during the ’26 general strike, made several impassioned speeches praising Italian dictator Bennito Mussolini, was dropped from the cabinet and spent the early 1930s vehemently arguing against Indian independence, saying “Gandhi-ism… will have to be grappled with and crushed”. Yes, that was Mahatma Gandhi he was talking about.

From about 1915 to 1935, therefore, the career of Winston Churchill was little more than a long string of failures and statements that, were they made today, would probably get you lynched by a rampaging mob of cardiganed liberals; in the early 1930s he (as well as standing up to Gandhi) was a supporter of General Franco, the Japanese invasion of China (in which some of the worst atrocities in the history of warfare were committed) and even (in 1935) Adolf Hitler, despite disapproving of his methods. Churchill was an impassioned opponent of socialism wherever he saw it, and went to outrageous extremes when fighting against it; if he had died then and there, history would have only remembered him as a raving, possibly fascist and almost certainly racist nutter whose only significant political contribution was Gallipoli. Which makes what happened next all the more amazing.

Europe in the 1930s was still gripped with fear at the prospect of another war, and as Germany under Hitler’s rule began to rearm and expand (totally counter to the conditions made in the Treaty of Versailles) most European nations were happy to stick to a policy of appeasement- which basically amounted to letting Germany do whatever they wanted in the desperate pursuit of not having to fight them. Churchill was one of the few ministers opposed to this policy, arguing from as early as 1935 that something had to be done to prevent German rearmament whilst being consistently ignored as the aforementioned raving nutter. However, the issue grew steadily in importance as his dire warnings as to the effects of German rearmament started to come true; the Third Reich first occupied the demilitarised Rhineland zone, then took control of Austria, and then the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After this latest bit of military action, Neville Chamberlain went to meet with Hitler, returning with the famous bit of paper in which Hitler had promised that he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. Six months later, the rest of Czechoslovakia came under German control and British rearmament started in earnest. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939,  Britain was finally dragged into war. It would prove to be Winston Churchill’s finest hour…