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Saturday, May 10, 2014

On This Day in 1940 Winston Churchill is Appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom


Winston Churchill watches a Boeing Fortress Mk I giving a flying display RAF bomber station, 6 June 1941
On 10 May 1940, hours before the German invasion of France by a lightning advance through the Low Countries, it became clear that, following failure in Norway, the country had no confidence in Chamberlain's prosecution of the war and so Chamberlain resigned. The commonly accepted version of events states that Lord Halifax turned down the post of prime minister because he believed he could not govern effectively as a member of the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons. Although the prime minister does not traditionally advise the King on the former's successor, Chamberlain wanted someone who would command the support of all three major parties in the House of Commons. A meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and David Margesson, the government Chief Whip, led to the recommendation of Churchill, and, as constitutional monarch, George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister. Churchill's first act was to write to Chamberlain to thank him for his support.

An element of British public and political sentiment favoured a negotiated peace with Germany, among them Halifax as Foreign Secretary, but Churchill refused to consider an armistice. Although at times personally pessimistic about Britain's chances for victory—Churchill told Hastings Ismay on 12 June 1940 that "[y]ou and I will be dead in three months' time"—his use of rhetoric hardened public opinion against a peaceful resolution and prepared the British for a long war. Coining the general term for the upcoming battle, Churchill stated in his "finest hour" speech to the House of Commons on 18 June, "I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin." By refusing an armistice with Germany, Churchill kept resistance alive in the British Empire and created the basis for the later Allied counter-attacks of 1942–45, with Britain serving as a platform for the supply of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Western Europe.

The war energised Churchill, who was 65 years old when he became Prime Minister. An American journalist wrote in 1941: "The responsibilities which are his now must be greater than those carried by any other human being on earth. One would think such a weight would have a crushing effect upon him. Not at all. The last time I saw him, while the Battle of Britain was still raging, he looked twenty years younger than before the war began ... His uplifted spirit is transmitted to the people"

Perhaps the person best placed to summarise Churchill's character during the war was the man who arguably worked most closely with him throughout most of the conflict, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) from December 1941 on, Field Marshal Alan Brooke. His diary entry for 10 September 1944, is particularly revealing:

"... And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war! It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again ... Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent. Never have such opposite extremes been combined in the same human being."


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