Churchill becomes Prime Minister
In early April the Allied Supreme War Council was agreeing to mine the harbours of Norway while Hitler was issuing order for the Germany invasion of the Scandanavian country. Everyone was aware of the importance of Swedish ore to the German war effort and the Norweigan port of Narvik was the port through which most of it was shipped.
‘This was their finest hour’.”
Churchill wanted to attack German supply lines by floating mines on the Rhine but the French feared German retaliation. Churchill went to Paris to convince his reluctant allies but was unsuccessful. Unfortunately his trip to Paris also delayed action in Norway and despite Chamberlain’s quip that Hitler had “missed the bus” German paratroopers were dropped on major centres in Denmark and Norway.
Ever optimistic, Churchill felt that Hitler had committed a”grave strategic error” because his forces could now be isolated by British naval forces. His colleagues supported action in Norway if only to keep Italy neutral but there was a sharp division as to what ports should be the targets. There was considerable pressure to target Trondheim, much to the south of Narvik. There was also some hope that the Germans could be caught in a pincer movement from landings at several other ports. All of this planning was to no avail because heavy snow and bitter cold weather impeded all British efforts.
On 1 May Churchill was given more direction of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and speculation on the future of Chamberlain’s government increased. To one observer it looked like 1915 over again but this time Churchill was seen as a possible beneficiary. Clementine was well aware of the precarious nature of politics and told her husband that only his long-standing opposition to Hitler had saved him from being blamed for Norway. There was considerable discontent among Tory backbenchers focused through the Watching Committee chaired by Lord Salisbury.
On 7 May a Parliamentary debate on the war effort began. Speaker after speaker, on both sides of the House, castigated the Government for its failures and its lack of will. Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, bedecked in full uniform including all medals, entered the House to a resounding applause. But the most devastating blow came when Leo Amery quoted Oliver Cromwell’s words to the Long Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
His supporters did everything they could to protect Churchill from the attacks and when he accepted responsibility for Norway, Lloyd George said that Churchill ‘must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues. “
Despite a three-line Whip the Government received a majority of only 81 out of a possible 213. As his opponents sang Rule Britannia or shouted “Go! Go! ” a downtrodden Neville Chamberlain left the House. When Labour refused to serve in a National Coalition headed by Chamberlain the fate of the Government was sealed.
On 10 May, as the German Blitzkrieg was being unleashed against Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, King George VI summoned Churchill to Buckingham Palace to ask him to form a government. To many it was inevitable given the circumstances. Many years before Harold Nicolson had prophesied in Vanity Fair: “He is a man who leads forlorn hopes, and when the hopes of England become forlorn, he will once again be summoned to leadership.” Even Stanley Baldwin had remarked in 1935: “if there is going to be a war – and no one can say there is not – we must keep him fresh to be our War Prime Minister.” This time Baldwin wrote him: “. . . from the bottom of my heart I wish you all that is good – health and strength of mind and body – for the intolerable burden that now lies on you.”
Churchill did not go to bed until 3:00 a.m. and as he later wrote: “. . . although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had not need for cheering dream. Facts are better than dreams.” The facts as he saw them would lead to ultimate victory and, as he was to tell the British people, his policy would be “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.” – had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
His greatest burden was supervising the withdrawal of Allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, but when General Alexander finally left on June 2 more than 335,000 men had been carried “out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead.”
On 14 June Paris fell and as Hitler prepared to go to Compiegne to accept the French surrender Churchill sent out his most famous call to arms: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”