Facing Hitler Alone: The Leadership of Churchill: The legacy of Winston Churchill has survived into the 21st century with its almost mythical qualities well intact. History remembers him, without overstating, as the eloquently spoken, sharp-witted British Prime Minister who, -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Category: History Paper Title: Facing Hitler Alone: The Leadership of Churchill Text: The legacy of Winston Churchill has survived into the 21st century with its almost mythical qualities well intact. History remembers him, without overstating, as the eloquently spoken, sharp-witted British Prime Minister who, through determination, perseverance, and principle, took his country’s burden upon his shoulders and turned what could have been the British Empire’s final hour into, as Churchill emphatically declared, “their finest hour.” While Churchill’s legendary status is well-known (and well-deserved), the methods and policies by which he employed to prepare his island for the Nazi onslaught are not as well known. The most commonly cited example of Churchill’s leadership is, of course, his “Finest Hour” speech following the fall of France.
However, words alone were of little protection as Hitler’s Luftwaffe prepared to cross the Channel. Therefore, it is my intention to examine the main actions taken by Churchill while preparing his nation for the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940. Through the review of British policy and activity after he assumed the head of government just prior to the fall of Dunkirk in late-May until the beginning of the Luftwaffe’s offensive in mid-August, 1940, Churchill’s crusade to brace his nation for war will be shown as an offensive campaign on three fronts: political stabilization, speeches to the Commons and public, and military build-up. These areas into which Churchill dedicated all of his energy were the foundation for British preparation prior to the Blitz.
Like a three-legged stool, the failure of one leg could cause the collapse of the nation’s will and ability to survive what Churchill knew was eminent. In order to properly put Churchill’s actions into perspective, England’s situation in April and May 1940 must be assessed. When on May 10 Churchill, then Dominions Secretary (a non-cabinet post) and member of the Conservative party, was asked by King George VI to form a government upon the resignation of Conservative leader Neville Chamberlain, the German Wehrmacht had already introduced its blitzkrieg-style warfare to the ill-prepared British Expeditionary and French forces in northern France. Furthermore, Churchill was not the heir-apparent to Chamberlain’s seat. He had not even been George VI’s first choice for the post, whom along with Chamberlain and the senior civil servants preferred Lord Halifax. George VI was still at odds over Churchill for supporting Edward VIII in his abdication of the British throne, and Chamberlain and the civil servants perceived Churchill as being without a strong party base.
After Lord Halifax withdrew from the appointment due to his unwillingness to ascend to the post as a peer rather than an elected member of Parliament, Churchill was reluctantly given the nod. Thus, Churchill assumed the reins of a war cabinet amidst international and political turmoil. In order to effectively conduct the war effort at home and abroad, Churchill had to first assemble a stable coalition within the government. As previously mentioned, he had his skeptics in Parliament.
Though he was now Prime Minister, Chamberlain remained the leader of the Conservative party. Upon entering the Commons on May 13 for the first address of his premiership, he was greeted with polite applause by the chamber whereas Chamberlain’s entrance was met with cheers. Churchill had to assemble his war cabinet carefully so as not to alienate the parties. He was, after all, attempting to assemble a coalition stable enough to carry the nation through a period of unprecedented international instability. Senior Conservative leaders Chamberlain and Halifax were appointed as Lord President of the Council and Foreign Secretary, respectively. Churchill also sought to include leaders of the Labour party, such as Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood, though Labour would only constitute one-third of the new government appointments.
Churchill’s new cabinet would be indicative of his sensibility and level-mindedness in the face of crisis. There was no condemnation of the Chamberlainites by exclusion, nor was there a flood of Churchill’s own loyal supporters. His coalition emerged as wisely balanced and relatively stable. Churchill also knew that political stability was not only vital to the immediate purpose of moving the nation forward in its war-time policies, but also to the maintenance of national morale.
Sustaining morale among the people would be a guiding principle in all of his decisions throughout the war, and this was the same principle which led him to seek the inclusion of Lloyd George into the cabinet in May 1940. This was a tricky maneuver by Churchill for several reasons. First, Lloyd George had a reputation of being soft on Hitler; in 1936, after returning from a meeting with the Fuhrer, George praised him as, “the greatest living German.” Furthermore, George and Chamberlain had a long standing feud between them. Churchill was willing to risk these potential problems, however. The addition of George to the war cabinet would, he felt, convey a larger sense of unity within the country.
Also, but only as a matter of speculation, Churchill wanted George in a position to assume his seat at the head of the government should the Britain face defeat. George, he believed, would be better suited to negotiate with Hitler than others within the government, should Britain meet such a fate. George would not accept Churchill’s offer, citing that he could not work with a man like Chamberlain, whom he despised. Although it was not necessary to have George in the cabinet, Churchill would press the issue on two more occasions. In doing so, Churchill had to also contend with Chamberlain’s objections to the appointment. He finally persuaded Chamberlain to agree to the idea in early June provided that Churchill would convince the London newspapers to refrain from bashing Chamberlain and the Chamberlainites for the lack of military readiness revealed at Dunkirk.
Some historians contend that Churchill was pleased with the attacks on Chamberlain and his “Guilty Men” as they liberated Churchill from the resentment he received from the Commons when he first began his premiership. However, this does not appear to be the case as Churchill agreed to ask the newspapers to drop their attacks on Chamberlain. Despite this, George still refused to join the war cabinet. Nonetheless, Churchill’s courting of Lloyd George demonstrates the lengths to which he would go in order to project a sense of unity within the government and have that unity bolster the nation’s morale and confidence. The most direct way in which Churchill addressed the issue of national morale was through his speeches to the House of Commons and on BBC radio. It is out of these numerous speeches that Churchill’s reputation as a master of the spoken word and savior to a nation has emerged.
Throughout the weeks that lingered between the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, Churchill’s speeches affected his people much in the same way as the “Fireside Chats” of his counterpart, President Franklin Roosevelt, affected the American public during the Great Depression. They were speeches meant to strengthen the fortitude of the British people. The words spoken by Churchill were to be a fuel added to the flame of patriotism, courage, and the condemnation of the Nazi threat poised across the English Channel. While the specific events that brought Churchill to speak were different each time, the themes Churchill spoke of remained the same. These themes were the long and bitter fight that lay ahead with the impending Luftwaffe attacks and possible invasion, and the determination to carry on the fight, unlike France, to every corner of the Empire.
Most important, though, was the insistence that Britain would be able to effectively engage in a fight against the Nazis, and preserve the nation as the last bastion of freedom in Europe. Of course, the British people did not find inspiration in Churchill’s words alone. It was the evacuation of Dunkirk, or as was commonly dubbed the “miracle” of Dunkirk, that gave Churchill’s words plausibility. The psychological effect of Dunkirk on British morale cannot be ignored.
While the evacuation was, by any military man’s standards, an overwhelming defeat, it shored-up British morale on three levels. First, and most vital in light of the anticipated Nazi offensive, the Royal Air Force proved its effectiveness against the German Luftwaffe. Though the RAF was greatly outnumbered by the German air force, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes destroyed as many as three Messerschmitts for every one RAF fighter downed. The Royal navy proved its superiority over the German navy throughout the evacuation by holding off the Nazis and aiding in the rescue of over 320,000 British and French troops. Furthermore, Britain knew it would live to fight another day, and that when the fight did arrive, it could stand-up to the Germans. Two of Churchill’s most famous speeches, made after the evacuation of Dunkirk on 4 June, and after the fall of France on 18 June, encompassed these themes.
In reaction to Dunkirk, while addressing the House of Commons, Churchill proclaimed: We shall go to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. Two weeks later, Churchill painted a broader and more urgent picture of the responsibility that the nation was forced to accept. He spoke of the survival of “Christian civilization” not only in Europe, but throughout the world. He suggested the two roads that lay ahead–one in which Hitler has won and Europe falls into the, “abyss of a new Dark Age,” and one in which Hitler has lost and the freed civilizations walk, “forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” This, Churchill asserted, would be looked back upon as the Empire’s, “finest hour.” Churchill also spoke frequently of London as a “City of Refuge” for all of Europe. This was by no means an understatement.
In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Britain, a steadily increasing number of Polish, French, Belgian, and Norwegian soldiers sought refuge in London, the last major European city not under the control of the Axis Powers. The city had also become the new home for Europe’s exiled leaders such as the queen of Holland, the king of Norway, and the President of Poland. The people of England knew that what was at stake was not simply their own sovereignty, but as Churchill said, the freedom of the entire continent. As previously stated, it would take more than just words and imagery to counter the ferocity of the Nazi war-machine.
After the fall of France, Churchill and the government knew that in order to survive the impending German offensive on Great Britain, production of aircraft and armaments would have to be raised to the highest levels possible, troops would have to be trained and mobilized, defense strategies would have to be devised, and with unoccupied France tied to Germany by an armistice, what was left of the French naval fleet would have to either be brought under the control of Britain, neutralized, or destroyed. Luckily, Churchill had made a wise decision in his appointment of W. M Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production. Beaverbrook was a capable man for the position, and though German aircraft production had outnumbered British production by almost 10,000 in the previous three years, Beaverbrook had increased the British rate of production to a level doubling that of Germany’s by the time the Luftwaffe took to the air over England. The state of British troops represented another major problem, as well.
The Battle of France had decimated the officer corps, and Churchill worried about the army’s organization. To resolve this problem, Churchill ordered the rapid promotion for officers of ability and instructed the army to create and organize British storm-troopers based on the German model. Furthermore, he facilitated the creation of smaller, more mobile units that included tank hunters and special force units. Preparation for an expected German land-invasion of the island required much more thought and detail.
Churchill anticipated the Germans to attempt a landing from the Channel that fall, and involved himself in every detail of the defense strategy. The most vital area of Britain’s defense plan was the southern coastline. Churchill feared that if Hitler could get a foothold on the coastline, the war could be lost in a matter of weeks. His plan called for a concentration of men and barriers along the coast with anti-tank obstacles.
If the Germans were able to get ashore and break the British line, the small, mobile forces previously described would advance from their inland positions to fill any gaps. Had this strategy failed, the fate of Britain would have been left to the Home Guard, a civilian force that had been organized and trained to fight street to street, house to house. In reference to a possible German advance into English cities, and the employment of the Home Guard in combat against the Wehrmacht, Churchill darkly advocated the motto, “You can always take one with you.” Naturally, he was apprehensive about this being the last line of defense for the nation, and pushed for the relocation of more regular army troops inland and among the cities. Wars, Churchill wrote, “are not won by heroic militias.” One of Churchill’s most significant contributions to British morale and Britain’s military situation was also one of the hardest decisions he had to make during the war. Following the establishment of the Vichy regime in southern France under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Ptain, Britain gave the French government an ultimatum in reference to what remained of their naval forces.
Fearing that German control of France’s modern fleet of battleships would be disastrous to the British war- effort, Churchill ordered that either the French agree to send their fleet to British ports, American waters, scuttle the vessels themselves, or Britain would destroy them herself. After Ptain and the Vichy government ignored the ultimatum, British naval forces opened fire on the fleet harbored in the Mers-el-Kbir naval base on 3 July. Two of the battleships managed to escape, but several more were destroyed and 1,250 French sailors were killed. While this event effectively ended official diplomatic relations between Britain and her former ally, the British people and the House of Commons praised Churchill for his swift and decisive action in what was Britain’s first significant offensive action of the war. Churchill characterized the ordeal as, “heartbreaking.” In the tense period between the Nazi invasion of France and the Battle of Britain, Churchill had suddenly assumed the reins of a nation facing its most serious crisis in centuries.
He found himself leading an empire that had not been conquered since 1066, yet was facing invasion by an army that had swept through Western Europe in mere months. Britain’s strongest European ally would be crushed in weeks, leaving her the next recipient of Hitler’s aggression. Yet Churchill moved quickly and surely to prepare his nation for its inevitable war of survival. Churchill employed significant measures in the area of political compromise, national morale, and military readiness, without which could have marked the defeat of Great Britain. His dedication to the defense of the nation would be the most powerful weapon Britain possessed. Churchill’s will to win at all costs would inspire his people, rally his troops, and earn the cooperation of his peers.
The weeks leading up to the Battle of Britain will remain in history as his finest hour. Works Cited Collier, Basil. The Battle of Britain. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1962.
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Roosevelt and Churchill. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1976. Lukacs, John.
The Duel. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-