The summer of 1940 was, as Churchill called it, Britain’s ‘finest hour’. It was also his. When the German armies conquered France, Britain found itself in the line of attack. With German U-boats patrolling the seas and soon to have bases on the Atlantic, and German bombers marshalling on the coast of France, Britain faced its first serious threat of invasion since 1805.
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.
Churchill, The Second World War
Many found it difficult to see how Britain could avoid being defeated. Victory seemed impossible. But Churchill was passionately opposed to negotiating with Hitler. The War Cabinet did consider a compromise peace – or at least the offer of mediation, by Italy, between Germany and the allies – but Churchill argued strongly against this. He was convinced that Hitler would renege on any promises or agreement, just as he had done back in 1938.
After failing to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned to night bombing raids against London and other British cities. The ‘Blitz’, as it became known, aimed to disrupt production and break morale. London was the main target and suffered the heaviest bombing but, by the end of the war, there was hardly a large city or town in Britain that had not come under attack.
As the winter wore on, the air raids became heavier. But the repeated heavy raids would not crush the morale of the British people. The ‘Blitz’ spirit kept them going. And Churchill played his part in keeping up morale. He made sure he was frequently in the public eye, constantly travelling around the country, visiting ammunition factories, shipyards, the troops.
Despite Churchill’s visits to Paris to stiffen French resolve, his attempts proved futile as the German blitzkrieg shattered the French resistance and drove the British Expeditionary Force back to the Channel ports. A pause in the German attacks between 27 May and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over three hundred thousand British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster into what came to be seen as a success; the saving of lives by the ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.
For more on Dunkirk, and a collection of personal accounts from some of those who took part in the mass evacuation, see the BBC’s Archives.
We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.
Churchill, speech of 4 June 1940
In 1951, Churchill finally avenged that devastating defeat of 1945 and was back in Downing Street. He was nearly seventy-seven. During this second period as Prime Minister, what he later referred to as ‘several years of quiet steady administration’, Churchill devoted much of his energy to foreign affairs; to Cold War issues, strengthening Anglo-American relations (that ‘special relationship’) and to retaining Britain’s position as a global power.
I want so much to lead the Conservatives back to victory. I know I am worth a million votes to them.
Quoted in Churchill, Michael Wardell, ‘Churchill’s Dagger: A Memoir of La Capponcina’, Finest Hour 87, Summer 1995
He didn’t do much in the way of domestic policy-making – stating once that the government’s priorities were ‘houses and meat and not being scuppered’ (John Colville, 22–23 March 1952).
Churchill didn’t enjoy being in opposition after 1945 and he didn’t attend the House of Commons very often, leaving the day-to-day party management to others. He didn’t seem particularly interested in economic issues, and the Conservatives came to seem increasingly out of step with the drive towards welfare and reconstruction.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, then, he ‘looked like a dinosaur at a light engineering exhibition’ (Aneurin Bevan, ‘History’s Impresario’). Vulnerable at home, unable to influence policy (and generally unwilling to), Churchill played to his strengths. He knew that he had the most to offer in his role as the great elder statesman who had ‘won the War’, and for the second time in his career, he turned his attentions abroad – and to the US.
The best that can be said for Churchill as leader of the Conservative Party is that he exercised a vague but olympian authority and kept the show on the road.
Paul Addison, review of Gilbert, Never Despair
Phase One of the Global Leadership Programme culminated with the publication of sixteen panel reports by international experts. The reports span geopolitics, business and finance, the sciences, society and faith, and explore the challenges facing leaders today and the skills needed for effective leadership in the modern world.
The reports were launched and debated in front of an audience at the iconic Churchill War Rooms in London. Watch videos of the panel debates below and read coverage across the British media.
On 2 June 1953, following the death of her father, George VI, the young Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England, the occasion filmed by television cameras – against Churchill’s wishes. He felt the Queen would find it a strain and that ‘[i]t would be unfitting that the whole ceremony … should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance’ (speech to House of Commons).
The future queen insisted and the filming went ahead. Churchill became a Knight of the Garter, becoming Sir Winston Churchill in April 1953 in time for the Coronation. He’d refused the honour when offered it by George VI after his election defeat in 1945, famously saying (but not to the king): ‘How can I accept the Order of the Garter, when the people of England have just given me the Order of the Boot?’.
On 18 June, Churchill warned the British people that the ‘battle of France’ was over and the ‘battle of Britain’ was about to begin. His words were proved right. As early summer gave way to July and August, the threat of invasion loomed over Britain.
If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies, choking in his own blood upon the ground.
Churchill, as quoted in Hugh Dalton’s Second World War Diary, entry for 28 May 1940
Churchill, seeing that control of the skies was vital, put businessman Lord Beaverbrook in charge of Aircraft Production (as Minister) and encouraged British scientists to improve radar defences and counter German technology. In August, the Royal Air Force managed to inflict heavy casualties on the German Luftwaffe and, in September, the German pilots transferred their attention from the coastal airfields and those in south-west England to London, allowing the fighter bases respite from attack but putting British people in the city at much greater risk. In early September a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred German bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in London’s East End almost continuously, day and night.
On 24 August, German night bombers aiming for the airfields accidentally destroyed several London homes due to a navigation error, killing civilians. Churchill retaliated immediately by bombing Berlin the following night.
Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights, and other British cities were targeted. But a real turning point in Britain’s fortunes in the war occurred on 15 September.
In an attempt to shatter British morale, now that an invasion began to seem increasingly unrealistic, Hitler sent two enormous waves of German bombers. But their attacks were scattered by the RAF; the German defeat caused Hitler to order, two days later, the postponement of preparations for the invasion. In the face of mounting losses of men and aircraft, the Luftwaffe switched from daylight to night-time bombing and although fighting continued in the air for several more weeks, and British cities continued to be bombed, German tactics to achieve air superiority ahead of an invasion had failed.
After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Churchill wanted his wartime coalition government to continue until the defeat of Japan which wasn’t anticipated for another year at least. But Labour and the majority of the Liberals refused and pulled out of the coalition. Churchill headed a Conservative ‘caretaker’ government for a brief period until Parliament was dissolved and the first general election for ten years was held.
I must tell you that in spite of all our victories a rough road lies ahead. What a shame it would be, and what a folly, to add to our load the bitter quarrels with which the extreme socialists are eager to convulse and exploit these critical years. For the sake of the country and of your own happiness I call upon you to march with me under the banner of freedom towards the beacon lights of national prosperity and honour which must ever be our guide.
Churchill, 21 June 1945
For much of the war, Churchill lived not at 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, but in ‘the Annexe’, a building nearby in Whitehall. Underneath this, were the Cabinet War Rooms (now a museum called the Churchill War Rooms) – a ‘bunker’ – where he and his government were protected from the worst the German bombers could rain down on London.
He spent a lot of his time here in meetings (although he only ever slept in the bedroom on three occasions), and ran it on ‘Winston time’; colleagues were expected to adapt to his way of working, staying up late at night to respond to his demands for updates on the war situation, analyzing reports and taking instructions (often with ‘Action this Day’ labels attached).
The Møller Centre’s building upgrade and expansion project was officially opened last week by Ms. Ane Mærsk Mc-Kinney Uggla, Chair of The A.P.Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation Board, vice-chair of global conglomerate Mærsk and daughter of The Møller Centre’s founder, Mr Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller.
To mark the occasion, senior business leaders from Cambridge and across the UK contributed to a Practical Leadership Symposium in The Møller Centre’s new collaborative learning space. Twenty-six CEOs and senior leaders from UK companies including Adnams, Babraham Bioscience Technologies, Bidwells, Dixons Carphone, Daily Mail and General Trust Plc, EY, Lloyds Bank, Marshall of Cambridge, Mills & Reeve, Red Gate Software, St John’s Innovation Centre, TWI and Xaar took part. The event began with Ane Mærsk Mc-Kinney Uggla delivering an inspirational keynote explaining the importance of core values in supporting leaders and global organisations to adapt and thrive in the 21st Century.
“Leadership This Day” illustrates how Winston Churchill’s example guides and motivates today’s leaders. Contributors come from many fields, including business, politics, and the military.
Every day, as I sit in the Speaker’s Chair in the Chamber of the House of Commons, I am acutely aware of the enduring consequences of one of Winston Churchill’s lesser-known “big decisions.”
In the late 1940s plans were being drawn up to rebuild the House of Commons, which had been so badly damaged during the War. The planners considered the basic facts. There were just over 600 MPs at that time, so they produced drawings for a Chamber that would seat 600 people.
Churchill challenged this. He insisted that the Chamber should be rebuilt to approximately the same size as it had previously been—to seat about 400 people.
Those who relied purely on statistics—and don’t we all encounter such people all too frequently—thought it was obvious that a parliamentary chamber should comfortably accommodate everyone who had a right and duty to sit in it. But they missed the point. They misunderstood the essential nature of the place.
Churchill adored the Commons Chamber. It was the forum in which he delivered his greatest speeches. It was his natural habitat. It was his home. He understood it. He knew instinctively how it worked. He had a feel for it that eluded others.
Iain Wilton recently completed his Ph.D. at Queen Mary, University of London. He has also written a major biography of the English sportsman, writer and politician C. B. Fry; among much else, it covers each of Fry’s key encounters with Churchill.
Artist’s view of the Festival on London’s South BankThe Festival of Britain has certainly earned some interesting and pithy descriptions in the sixty-five years since it was staged. In the words of its Director-General, Gerald Barry, it represented “a tonic to the nation” after twenty years in which Britons had successively endured economic depression, total warfare and acute post-war austerity.1 In the case of Winston Churchill, however, several historians have claimed that he saw the Festival in a very different and darker light. In particular, various commentators have alleged that Churchill (then Leader of the Opposition) was vehemently opposed to the venture and regarded it as “three-dimensional socialist propaganda.”2
While this dramatic phrase has been used repeatedly, it is equally striking that it has never been properly sourced. As a result, it is surely high time to consider whether Churchill was as hostile to the Festival as this alleged comment suggests and a number of historians have asserted. Alternatively, does any firmer evidence exist to show that his stance towards the project was actually conciliatory or even supportive, in sharp contrast to the historical consensus that has developed since the Festival took place?
Roger Hermiston, All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition, 1940–45, Aurum Press, 406 pages, £20.
Review by John Campbell
John Campbell’s books include major biographies of F. E. Smith, Aneurin Bevan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and most recently Roy Jenkins.
The title of this book derives from the caption for the great cartoonist David Low’s Evening Standard drawing of 14 May 1940—four days after Churchill became Prime Minister— showing Churchill followed by leaders of the new government, all rolling up their sleeves and marching determinedly forward to start the job of winning the war.
Roger Hermiston’s bright idea is to take this image as the starting point for examining Britain’s war effort not as the achievement of one man—however indispensable his leadership—but rather as the product of the whole coalition government, comprising a remarkable collection of individuals from widely different backgrounds, working together, not always harmoniously but in the end effectively, for the common goal of victory. It is so obviously right that it is surprising that no one, so far as I know, has done it before. His book is skilfully constructed, with successive chapters focussing on the particular contribution of different players while maintaining a broad chronological narrative through the stages of the war, from the defiant unity of May 1940 through the dark days of 1941 to the turning of the tide in 1942 with the entry of the Russians and the Americans and the increasing strains within the coalition, as attention turned towards building the post-war world. Read More >
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