Churchill became Prime Minister of a national government on 10 May 1940, the very day that Hitler invaded France and the Low Countries. The first few weeks of his premiership were marked by military disaster, as France surrendered and the British army was evacuated from Dunkirk. The United Kingdom then faced direct attack in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.
Churchill’s famous speeches and broadcasts were carefully constructed to raise British morale while sending a message of defiance to Germany and a call for support to the United States. Churchill’s policy was ‘victory at all costs’ through ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Though sixty-five in 1940, he strove to take the offensive to the enemy and worked tirelessly to assemble and maintain the Grand Alliance against fascism. With his bulldog scowl, ever-present cigar and V for Victory salute he came to personify the British war effort. This section will tell you more about his time as
Chamberlain had resigned on 10 May 1940, the day that German forces attacked British and French ground forces and the day the ‘phoney war’ ended. With the only other contender, Lord Halifax, ruling himself out, Churchill’s appointment was inevitable and his time in the wilderness was over.
In the evening of 10 May, Churchill went to see King George VI at Buckingham Palace and became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task that lay ahead.
Churchill, as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, was in a powerful position, with full oversight of both the armed forces (all three of them; the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force) and the government of the country. He was also the only cabinet minister who had held high office during the previous war, and was widely hailed as the necessary war leader. But he did not yet have the full confidence or leadership of his own conservative party, and there were many in government who were worried that he might prove rash and dangerous in his actions. He needed to prove himself.
Back in August 1941, and the signature of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt hadn’t been ready or able to enter the war. But the situation changed dramatically on 7 December 1941.
Churchill was at Chequers (the Prime Minister’s official country residence) with the American Ambassador and Averell Harriman when news of the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor came on the radio. Churchill immediately called the President to confirm the news and then on 8 December, Britain declared war on Japan.
The partial involvement of the US and the Pearl Harbor attack led Hitler to declare war on the US three days later. Did Churchill (and Roosevelt) know of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Find out.
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
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.
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).
Winston Churchill visited Leeds on 16 May 1942 at the height of the Second World War. Jane Brechner, the great-granddaughter of Lord Mayor, Hyman Morris, provided the accompanying family photos of her great-grandfather accompanying Churchill during his visit.
We shall go forward together. The road upwards is stony. There are upon our journey dark and dangerous valleys through which we have to make and fight our way. But it is sure and certain that if we persevere – and we shall persevere – we shall come through these dark and dangerous valleys into a sunlight broader and more genial and more lasting than mankind has ever known. Winston Churchill, Leeds, 16 May 1942
On this occasion of his visit Churchill ChurchillChusssaid in part, “In the height of the second great war, it is a great pleasure to come to Leeds and bring to the citizens a word of thanks and encouragement in all the work they are doing to promote the common cause of many nations and in many lands. That cause appeals to the hearts of all those in the human race who are not already gripped by tyranny or who have not already been seduced to its insidious voice. That cause is shared by all the millions of our cousins across the Atlantic who are preparing night and day to have their will and rights respected. It appeals to the patient millions of China, who have suffered long from cruel aggression and still fight with faithful stubbornness. It appeals to the noble manhood of Russia, now at full grips with the murderous enemy, striking blow for blow.”
Victory in Europe (VE) Day, on 8 May 1945, officially celebrated the end of the WWII in Europe.
Following Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945, Admiral Dönitz, who’d been President of the Third Reich for only a week, authorised General Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender of German forces to the Allies on 7 May 1945, in the presence of senior officers from Britain, America, Soviet Russia and France. (The Soviets insisted on a second ceremony in Berlin on 8 May, which is why Russia still celebrates VE Day on 9 May).
The Normandy invasion aimed to establish the Allied armies in German-occupied Europe. Operation Overlord, as it was called, was the largest amphibious operation in history. The initial landing was on 6 June 1944 and after hard fighting, the Allied breakout occurred in late July.
Visit the BBC D-Day Homepage here Listen to the historic reports on the BBC here
Allied land forces that saw combat in Normandy on 6 June came from Canada, the Free French Forces, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In the weeks following the invasion, Polish forces also participated, as well as contingents from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and the Netherlands. Most of the above countries also provided air and naval support, as did the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the Royal Norwegian Navy.
Standing behind Roosevelt and Churchill: Admiral Ernest King (USN); General George Marshall (U.S. Army); Field Marshal Sir John Dill (British Army); Admiral Harold Stark (USN); Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound (RN). At far left, Harry Hopkins is talking with Averell Harriman
The Atlantic Charter
HMS Prince of Wales, 10 August 1941: “I chose the hymns myself: “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We ended with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”….Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.” -WSC, 1950
On 14 August 1941, Winston Churchill broadcasted a speech on the BBC discussing the Atlantic Charter.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,Washington, 8 November 1993
First of all I would like to say that I am sure, like everybody here who has been around the Museum today, I am still very much under its impact, and I, too, would like to pay my tribute to Yeshayahu Weinberg, whom I first knew when he was devising the marvelous Beit Hatefusot Museum in Tel Aviv, the museum of the history of the Jewish people in the diaspora. I think the work he has done here is truly extraordinary.
I would like in the next fifty minutes to look at an aspect of Churchill’s life which has always concerned me, as a historian of Churchill, as a historian of the Holocaust, and as a Jew.
Every biographer tries to find the key to his subject’s personality, and above all the flaws and weaknesses which are an indispensable part of any biographical presentation. I remember how pleased, actually thrilled, I was some twenty-five years ago, talking to one of those who had been close to Churchill in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. He said to me: “You have to understand, Gilbert, that Winston did have one serious fault.” As a biographer, my ears pricked up and my pen was poised to record and then to follow this up. This gentleman continued, “He was too fond of Jews.” Whether this was a serious fault for some of his contemporaries, for his biographer it was an extraordinary window into his life.
Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95
Annual Churchill Conference, Boston, 28 October 1995
Winston Churchill was a British statesman whose goal was to advance the interests of Great Britain. When in office, that was the principle fundamental to his actions. If other principles came into conflict with that bedrock commitment, they automatically took second place. And there were times when what individuals might consider immutable rights—political freedom, for example—came into conflict with what Churchill considered British interests. He understood that conflict and tried to reconcile the two—but when that failed, his interpretation of British interests prevailed. The political fate of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, particularly Poland, is one such case.
The tenets of liberalism—be it the British or American form— ensured that at least the appearance of free choice presented itself in the states liberated and occupied by the Anglo-Americans, although a good deal of effort (much of it covert and coercive) went into preventing those peoples from freely choosing either Communism or Socialism. But throughout most of Soviet-liberated Eastern Europe, only one choice was available, with only desultory protests from either London or Washington. Churchill and Roosevelt clearly anticipated little else.
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On this day in 1940, Winston Churchill gave to the House of Commons what many consider to be his most famous speech: "Their Finest Hour". This speech was made following France’s armistice, and espoused British national survival in the face of Nazi tyranny.
This speech can be read in full in Winston Churchill’s "The War Speeches", found in the first volume "Into Battle" (which was published in the U.S. and Canada under the title "Blood, Sweat and Tears"). We have many fine copies of "The War Speeches", including a newly acquired, Churchill-signed copy that can be found on our website by searching "208643".
The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.