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.
Only five days after he took over as Prime Minister, Churchill flew out to France, where the German offensive was making advances on Paris. Panic was setting in.
For more information, including images, documents and film footage of this crucial year, see the Imperial War Museum’s 1940 ‘exhibition’.
John Colville, who became Churchill’s private secretary in May 1940 and remained with him for the next fifteen years, conveyed an intimate and authoritative portrait of Churchill during the war years, in his diary, The Fringes of Power.