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Feature: Waging War Against the Odds

Photo: Churchill and President Roosevelt seated side by side on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales, Sunday, 10 August 1940. (CAC, CSCT 5/4/40)


Winston Churchill is viewed by most as the strongman who stood up to Hitler. Yet, as Allen Packwood, BA, MPhil (Cantab), FRHistS – a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and the Director of the Churchill Archives Centre – explains, on becoming Prime Minister the odds were stacked against him.

Sir Winston Churchill is an instantly recognisable figure. With his bulldog scowl, his ‘V-for-Victory’ salute, omnipresent cigar and eccentric wardrobe of velvet siren suits and military hats, he cannot be mistaken for anyone else. In the marketing parlance of today, he is a unique brand. His celebrated speeches continue to be quoted and misquoted, and his greatest phrases have become almost ubiquitous.

Churchill’s image now adorns the British £5 note, where the clock of Big Ben is shown frozen at 3pm, commemorating the moment on 13 May 1940 when the new Prime Minister stood up in the House of Commons and promised: “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however hard and long the road may be.”

Yet strip away the layers of hindsight, travel back in time to 1940, and the question was: how? Churchill’s six-minute speech was deliberately big on rhetoric and devoid of detail. He may have felt he was “walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”, but he was also aware he was waging war from a position of weakness.

He was not elected Prime Minister. He was there because the Labour Party would no longer serve under Neville Chamberlain in a national coalition; and because Lord Halifax, the Conservative Foreign Secretary, was not willing to try and lead a wartime government from the House of Lords rather than the Commons.

It was a Westminster coup from which Churchill emerged as the only leading Conservative with the popular credibility and political ability to form a government. But he was far from universally popular in Westminster and Whitehall.

Cheered by troops, circa 1944. Such occasions were almost as important for Churchill’s own morale as for those he was visiting. (CAC, CSCT 7/6)

Road to Power

From the outbreak of war, Churchill had been back in Neville Chamberlain’s War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, the civilian minister in charge of the Royal Navy, but he was felt by many to be an opportunist and maverick.

He had first entered the British Cabinet in 1908, aged only 33, and over the course of the next 20 years had served in many of the major offices of state. But it had been a rollercoaster ride, and in the decade leading up to the outbreak of war he had been excluded from high office.

To some of his political contemporaries he was a reactionary figure who had told the suffragettes he would not be henpecked, had championed the costly Gallipoli campaign in the First World War and had dismissed Gandhi as a ‘half naked fakir’.

Some had even dismissed his calls for rearmament in the face of Hitler’s growing power as a cynical ploy designed to undermine Prime Ministers Baldwin and Chamberlain – although it had gained him the support of large sections of the press and public.

His long and controversial career, with its changes of party, had made him enemies on both sides of the House of Commons – he started as a Conservative, switched to the Liberals, then back to the Conservatives, apparently allowing him to remark that “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat”.

Such fears, suspicions, rivalries and jealousies were only exacerbated by Churchill’s forceful personality; a combustible mix of eloquence, self-confidence and energy with a tendency to dominate that did not always make him a congenial colleague. This, after all, is the young man who announced: “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”

A Most Dangerous Position

The wonderfully named General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, observed in his diary that Churchill’s “physique must be marvellous, but I cannot think that he would make a good Prime Minister. He has not got the stability necessary for guiding the others.”

And Jock Colville, a Private Secretary in Downing Street (who would later become a great friend), was equally damning, fearing that, with Churchill at the helm, the country “may be manoeuvred into the most dangerous position it has ever been in”. Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, doubted that the nation would get a better PM than Chamberlain.

Churchill and President Roosevelt seated side by side on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales, Sunday, 10 August 1940. (CAC, CSCT 5/4/40)

Despite Churchill’s feelings of destiny, he did not inherit a strong position. Quite the contrary. To form a national coalition, he had to offer places in his War Cabinet to Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, and to keep his own Conservative Party on side he had to give the two remaining seats to Chamberlain and Halifax.

As he looked around that famous cabinet table he was confronted by his predecessor, his main Conservative rival, and the representatives of a socialist party he had spent much of his political life attacking. He may have had public support but did not have a political powerbase in Westminster.

This feature continues in the December issue of Britain at War – in the shops now.

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