How did Winston Churchill become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in World War Two?

Winston Churchill - 1940

Winston Churchill led an extraordinary life, but perhaps the most remarkable element in his life was how he became prime minister in 1940. Just a few years earlier he was widely seen as politically isolated and was widely ridiculed for his views. In 1940, he was appointed his nation’s Prime Minister at its darkest hours and became the leader of the fight against Germany. [1] Churchill’s political fortunes changed because of his unstinting opposition to Germany and the realization by Parliament that his leadership was what Britain needed in its most desperate hour.

Background

Winston Churchill was born into one of Britain’s leading political and aristocratic families. His father Randolph Churchill was one of the leading political figures of his time. [2] Churchill, from his youth, was a charismatic figure. He earned fame while still in his twenties, as a war journalist and for his exploits during the Boer War. Churchill joined the Conservative Party and eventually elected an M.P. During the First World War, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-15), in effect, he was in command of the British navy. In 1915, Churchill was forced to resign after the failed invasion of Gallipoli. Churchill later served as an officer in the British army on the western front.

After the war, he joined the British Liberal Party and was to serve as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was widely seen as making critical mistakes, that led to an economic downturn in Britain.[3] By the 1930’s he was in the political wilderness. However, he was a well-known figure in Britain and was genuinely popular. Churchill became famous for his journalism and his historical works. In 1935, he re-joined the Conservatives and sat as an M.P. in the House of Commons. [4] His fame rested on his eloquence as both a speaker and writer.

Appeasement

Winston Churchill in military uniform in 1895
Europe in the 1930s, saw the rise of dictators in Europe, as democracies collapsed, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Germany's democratic government's power eroded during the depression and eventually collapsed. Germany began to dismantle the provisions of the Versailles Treaty and rapidly expand its army. The government invested heavily into the country's arms industry, and it was rapidly rebuilt.[5]

Germany's actions became increasingly aggressive and they re-occupied the Rhineland. Churchill warned against German aggression, and he stated in several fiery speeches that Germany posed an existential threat to peace in Europe. However, he was widely dismissed at this time.[6] Still many in the political elite in Britain at this time favored appeasing Germany because they believed that Germany had been too harshly treated under the Treaty of Versailles.

The British governments of Baldwin and later Chamberlin and the French favored the policy of appeasement. They were willing to allow Germany to reassert itself on the continent and to pursue its interests. This policy of appeasement was intended to prevent Germany from going to war. By the mid-1930s, Germany and Fascist Italy were becoming increasingly belligerent. The Italians invaded Ethiopia, and Germany occupied Austria.[7] Still the British and French governments did nothing. Churchill condemned the aggression of Italy and Germany, and he lamented what he saw as the weakness and cowardice of the British and French governments.[8] He argued that their policy of appeasement was wrong and would only lead to a war. He called on them to stand up to Germany before it was too late.

In 1938, Germany demanded the return of the Sudetenland, a German-speaking area in Czechoslovakia to Germany. This almost led to a war. However, Chamberlin, the current British Prime Minister, allowed the Germans to occupy the Sudetenland in exchange for German reassurances that they would seek no more territory in Europe in the so-called Munich Agreement of 1938. [9] Within months, Hitler had broken the agreement, and by 1939, it was widely expected that Europe would once again be plunged into war. Churchill had predicted this, and the British public recognized that their government’s policies had been ill-advised.[10] Many believed that if Churchill had been heeded, Germany might have been stopped. Churchill became the most popular politician in Britain. Many began to call for him to lead the country. These people even included those who had previously derided him as a crank. Churchill was viewed as remarkably prescient and who potentially understood Germany's ultimate goals better than anyone else in Parliament.

Outbreak of War

Winston Churchill- 1940

In September 1939, the German war machine invaded Poland. Then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin declared war on Germany. The British adopted a cautious policy. The sent the British Expeditionary Force to France. Both the Allied British and French adopted a defensive posture and waited for a German attack. This action was derisively referred to as the Phoney War because were the allies were waiting for Germany’s next move.[11] Chamberlin knew that Churchill, was wildly popular, and he invited him to join the war cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty, on the day that Britain declared war on Germany. Churchill began to prepare the British navy for war against Germany.

Many believed that Chamberlin invited Churchill to join the war cabinet to ensure that he did not cause problems for the government in the House of Commons. It proved to be a popular move, and the public welcomed Churchill’s return to the cabinet. Poland was defeated within weeks by Germany, and after the Molotov-Rippentrop pact, Hitler turned his attention west towards France. Churchill argued strongly in favor of an aggressive strategy. He wanted the British and French to attack Germany, and he proposed that the Allies occupy Norway, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans.[12] In the Spring of 1940, the German navy and army attacked Norway, even though it was a neutral nation. Like Churchill, Germany realized that Norway had great strategic importance. When Germany invaded Norway, it was the main source of their iron ore, and they need to keep Norway's iron ore flowing to Germany. [13]

Battle of Norway

The Allies dispatched forces to Norway to help the Norwegian army to beat back the German invaders, but it was too late. The Germans landed paratroopers in the country and rapidly reinforced these forces with several divisions of German infantry. Germany quickly and easily defeated the Norwegian army. The French and the British arrived too late and in too few numbers. The Norwegian army regrouped in the north of the country, where they were joined by British and French forces. There were several fierce battles, and the Allies put up fierce resistance.

The Allies and the Norwegian were forced to evacuate their units from the Norwegian port of Narvik, taking with them the king of Norway and his government. The ‘loss’ of Norway caused consternation in Britain, and many feared that it could be used as a base to attack the British mainland. Once again Churchill had been proven right and if he had been heeded the allies could have held Norway. The public outcry over Norway meant that people had lost faith in the Conservative government and resulted in calls for the resignation of Neville Chamberlin.[14] Many Conservatives believed that it was time for a change, for the good of the country.

Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister May 1940

On May 10th, the Germans invaded western Europe.[15] They launched coordinated attacks on the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. London was in a panic, and many believed that a German victory was inevitable. The British people demanded that a National Government, be put in place, comprising the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Party. It was believed that such were the dangers that only a National Government, as in World War I could save the country. Lord Halifax was an early favorite to become prime minister, but he was unwilling. His candiacy also was tainted by his support of Chamberlain's the appeasement policy. It was rumored that Halifax had been to seeking peace with Germany.

The public overwhelmingly supported Churchill, and they saw him as someone who could lead their country. However, many of the British political elite believed that Churchill was a maverick and too unpredictable. Perhaps crucially, Churchill was also favored by the British armed forces. He was genuinely popular with the rank and file. Additionally, British officers and saw Churchill as someone who could successfully fight Germany.

National Hero

The Conservative government, under popular pressure, asked the other parties to form a National Government. However, when the Labour Party and Liberal Party voted to join the National Government, they stated that the preferred Churchill as leader.[16] This support was based on his unflinching long-term opposition to Hitler's Germany. Churchill's warnings about Germany and fascism were proved correct, and he was the only senior political figure with the moral authority and popularity to lead the nation. Ultimately, the parties agreed to form a National Government, the King then called Churchill and ‘invited’ him to become Prime Minister. It was a popular choice in the country; the public wanted a war leader someone who would unite and inspire the country to victory.

Churchill promised the British victory. He faced numerous various challenges within weeks of his appointment. Germany conquered France and much of Western Europe. Churchill ignored all pleas to enter into peace negotiations with Germany. He believed that it would be impossible to reach an agreement with Germany because the government was bent on world domination. He proved to be a brilliant war-leader and helped lead his country to victory in the Battle of Britain. The Battle of Britain permanently stalled the planned German invasion. The appointment of Winston Churchill in May 1940 probably saved Britain and ultimately laid the foundation for the Allied victory.

Conclusion

The appointment of Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister was a remarkable turn of events. He had been in the political wilderness for some time. However, his steadfast opposition to the appeasement of Hitler, his great oratory skills, and writings ensured that he remained a political force during this time. Eventually, his firmly held beliefs and courage increased his popularity in Britain and even overcame the British Establishment's distrust of him. His moral authority and clear understanding of Hitler's motives encouraged his country to call on him at its darkest hour.

References

  1. Hastings, Max. Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940–45. (London: Harper Press, 2009), p. 112.
  2. Hastings, p. 13
  3. Charmley, John (1993). Churchill, The End of Glory: A Political Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton p. 117
  4. Charmley, p. 117
  5. James, Robert Rhodes. Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900–1939(Harper Press, London, 1970), p. 134
  6. James, p. 211
  7. Hastings, p. 117
  8. The Times of London, 13 June 1936
  9. Hastings, p. 134
  10. Hastings, p. 119
  11. Hastings, p. 117
  12. Hastings, 211
  13. Hastings, p. 117
  14. Hastings, 213
  15. The Times of London, 11 May 1940
  16. The Times of London, 12 May 1940

Updated December 31, 2018.

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