Late in his life, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was often asked which year of his long and distinguished career he would like to relive. Every time, he immediately answered 1940, for as he said on another occasion, “Nothing surpasses 1940.” The reasons are obvious. It was the year he finally achieved his lifelong goal of becoming prime minister, and it was the year that Nazi Germany suffered its first defeat after a series of military victories: the British triumph in the Battle of Britain, which began that summer. And yet it was also a year that Churchill faced serious challenges that could have driven Britain out of the war and himself from the premiership.

When war broke out on September 1, 1939, Churchill was brought back to the cabinet by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the position he had first held during World War I, First Lord of the Admiralty. It was a popular move and marked the rejection of the appeasement policies that Britain had followed throughout the 1930s as well as the end of Churchill’s long campaign warning of the threat from Hitler’s Germany. The word went out to the British Navy in a telegram: “Winston is back.”

Churchill and the navy’s performance was one of the few successes in the opening phase of the global conflict, a period that became known as “The Phoney War”—no battles took place in the West for eight months. After suffering some surprising losses from German U-boats, the British Navy cleared the high seas of German surface-raiders, culminating in a dramatic success when they forced the Germans to scuttle the “pocket” battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of Montevideo in December 1939. The British Navy sank nine U-boats in 1939 and helped convoy 5,500 ships successfully to port. Churchill, always acting aggressively, was given much of the credit for this success, and his stature in the cabinet and among the nation grew.

All that changed in the new year. Churchill had been arguing for some time to mine the waters along the Norwegian coast (known as “the Leads”) as a way to prevent Swedish iron ore from reaching Germany. The British cabinet hesitated, and on April 9 the Germans invaded Norway. Churchill and the Navy were charged with stopping this action. The subsequent Norwegian Campaign was a disaster for Britain. The British Navy inflicted serious losses on German naval forces but was unable to stop the Germans from overrunning the country. The British campaign was badly administered with many of Churchill’s decisions proving wrong, and yet it led to the collapse of Chamberlain’s government and opened the way for Churchill.

Despite his responsibility for many of the mistakes in Norway (underestimating the damage that air power could inflict on unprotected naval forces and supporting overly aggressive landings in the face of German superiority in all military forms), Churchill survived blame for the subsequent catastrophe. The British public—remembering his campaign for rearmament and his opposition to appeasement—forgave him and blamed Chamberlain’s government for the setbacks.

Following perhaps the most significant debate in English parliamentary history, known as the “Norway Debate,” Chamberlain fell from power on May 9, and Churchill, despite his unpopularity with many in his own Conservative Party, was asked to form a government. All the mistakes of his past were forgiven because he had been right after all. He took office on May 10, the day on which the Germans launched their long-expected offensive in the West with an attack on the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Churchill became prime minister just as France and Britain faced their greatest threat since the opening days of World War I. On May 13 Churchill gave his first speech as prime minister. The Conservatives in the House were quiet as he entered but cheered loudly when Chamberlain arrived. Churchill knew that he had not yet won their loyalty.

Churchill’s speech was brief and warned that hard times were ahead for Britain. Quoting the Italian nationalist leader Garibaldi, he told the House of Commons that all he could offer them was “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He also warned the nation that they faced “many long months of struggle and of suffering.” His policy was “to wage war, by sea, land and air,” and his aim was simple: “It is victory, victory at all cost . . . for without victory, there is no survival.” The speech was cooly received by many in his own party, but it was the first of four speeches Churchill gave in the summer of 1940 that collectively began his transformation into a hero in Britain’s and the world’s eyes. More importantly, his speeches began the process of winning the trust of the nation. It was also an example of his concise literary style. He believed that “short words are the best and the old words when short are the best of all.”

The German attack in the west was a spectacular success. The Netherlands collapsed in a matter of days, with Belgium following suit and surrendering on May 28. The Germans, using the blitzkrieg strategy that proved successful in Poland in September 1939, broke the French defensive line on May 15 and began a drive that reached the seacoast only four days later, effectively dividing British and French forces north and south.

While this was unfolding, Churchill was putting together a new government, not an easy task given the distrust felt for him by many in his own Conservative Party—one future party leader, Rab Butler, called him nothing more than a “half-breed American.” Churchill found it hard to believe that the French forces he so admired—he had once remarked in the face of German aggression, “Thank God for the French Army”—were so easily routed. Churchill had not only taken the premiership but also the new office of Minister of Defence, which gave him control of military policy. He remembered what happened in World War I when the civilian authorities had little impact on military decisions with the result that the British suffered 750,000 killed in action, a figure almost double their losses in World War II.

It is a testament to Churchill’s realism that within two weeks he began preparing for the unthinkable: a withdrawal from France, leaving England to carry on the fight alone. When Lord Gort, the British commander in France, made it clear that British forces faced defeat and surrender, Churchill ordered an evacuation from the port of Dunkirk. The British expected at best to be able to get 50,000 soldiers off the beaches. Instead, in a remarkable operation spanning nine days (May 26–June 4), the British managed to withdraw over 330,000 troops (though without their equipment). The British called it a miracle, but Churchill knew better: “we must be careful,” he told the House of Commons “not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

France surrendered on June 22. Knowing this was coming, Churchill spoke to the House of Commons on June 18 in one of the speeches that gave the British people a sense that they were living through a great moment in their history. The battle of France was over, he began, and he expected the Battle of Britain was about to begin. Defeat would prove disastrous: 

[I]f we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted Science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.’

The speech was an example of Churchill at his best: honestly facing facts in outlining the dangers Britain faced. It is also interesting for his first notice that the fate of the United States would be determined by the war. Since the collapse of France, Churchill had been trying to win American support for the war effort, particularly appealing for needed military equipment to make up for what Britain had lost during the French collapse. It was the beginning of the official campaign to bring America into the war.

Churchill knew that President Roosevelt and the Americans in general were watching what was happening, and that public opinion there was pro-British but was beginning to believe that Britain might lose the war. The Americans were aware that there was a pro-peace group in the British cabinet who in late May, as France’s collapse became more obvious, thought of approaching Mussolini to organize peace talks. These peace approaches were beaten back only when Chamberlain, still in the cabinet and with a strong following in Parliament, backed Churchill.

Worried that the French might turn their fleet over to German control and to make it clear to the world—and particularly the United States—that Britain was in the war for victory, Churchill ordered the navy to sink the French naval forces at Mers-el-Kébir, the largest French naval base in North Africa. The news shocked many but convinced the world that Britain wasn’t contemplating a peace deal. When Churchill reported the news in the House of Commons, he was greeted with shouts of approval with members waving their parliamentary papers. For the first time the House of Commons greeted him with genuine enthusiasm. Mers-el-Kébir was a sign that Churchill was in charge. It also convinced the Americans that Britain would be worth supporting. The deal of September, in which forty American destroyers were exchanged for British naval bases in the Caribbean, flowed directly from that conviction.

The British public expected a German invasion, but Churchill knew that before that could happen the Germans would have to seize control of the skies over the English Channel. Hitler believed that with the defeat of France, Britain would eventually sue for peace, a major misreading of Churchill. Indeed, Churchill understood Hitler better than Hitler understood Churchill. What Churchill christened the Battle of Britain began slowly in July. German air attacks, sporadic at first, as if feeling out the British, mounted in intensity by mid-August. The targets were airfields and airplane factories, with such attacks aimed at weakening British defenses. For the first time the Germans were facing an enemy who was their equal technologically, and they suffered higher losses than the British. By September it was clear that the British were not close to defeat. On September 15—now Battle of Britain Day—the Germans launched their biggest raid. It was beaten back with German losses of fifty-eight planes. Two days later Hitler postponed plans for an invasion of England and switched to nighttime bombing raids. The raids lasted for nine months, killing 40,000, and injuring over 80,000.

Of the British victory in the Battle of Britain Churchill famously declared that “never in human history was so much owed by so many to so few.” But as Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a near run thing. Despite British claims of shooting Germans on the order of five to one, in reality, the figures were closer to one-and-a-half to one. During the Battle of Britain, 70 percent of RAF pilots came from state schools, unlike the other branches of the military, the army and navy, whose leadership was drawn from the upper classes.

Instead of undermining Churchill’s popularity, the bombing attacks endeared him to the public. Unlike Hitler, who never visited a bombed site, Churchill did so often, touring the rubble, waving his hat, and always holding a cigar. The public sensed that he shared their fate. Churchill, who cried easily—he called himself a “blubberer”—was seen openly doing so by people at a bombed site. One old woman cried out, “Look, he really cares.”

Britain survived 1940 but was without any allies. Churchill survived, too, with his popularity intact. Most British public-opinion polls placed his popular approval at 80 percent—a far cry from the single-digit figure of the 1930s. Another evaluation of Churchill’s actions in 1940 comes from an unusual source: Dr. Josef Goebbels. At the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Goebbels commented: that if it weren’t for Churchill “this war would have been won.” Not a bad epitaph for a man whose political career had been considered finished.

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