80 Years On: Winston Churchill Prime Minister, 10 May 1940

80 Years On: Winston Churchill Prime Minister, 10 May 1940

The 10th of May…

In the splin­ter­ing crash of this vast bat­tle the qui­et con­ver­sa­tions we had had in Down­ing Street fad­ed or fell back in one’s mind. How­ev­er, I remem­ber being told that Mr. Cham­ber­lain had gone, or was going, to see the King, and this was nat­u­ral­ly to be expect­ed. Present­ly a mes­sage arrived sum­mon­ing me to the Palace at six o’clock. It only takes two min­utes to dri­ve there from the Admi­ral­ty along the Mall. Although I sup­pose the evening news­pa­pers must have been full of the ter­rif­ic news from the Con­ti­nent, noth­ing had been men­tioned about the Cab­i­net cri­sis. The pub­lic had not had time to take in what was hap­pen­ing either abroad or at home, and there was no crowd about the Palace gates.

I was tak­en imme­di­ate­ly to the King. His Majesty received me most gra­cious­ly and bade me sit down. He looked at me search­ing­ly and quizzi­cal­ly for some moments, and then said, “I sup­pose you don’t know why I have sent for you?” Adopt­ing his mood, I replied, “Sir, I sim­ply couldn’t imag­ine why.” He laughed and said, “I want to ask you to form a Gov­ern­ment.” I said I would cer­tain­ly do so. —Win­ston S. Churchill, “The Gath­er­ing Storm,” 1948

Churchill explained that his com­mis­sion did not extend to cre­at­ing a nation­al gov­ern­ment. But in the crash of events, and Germany’s inva­sion in the West, he believed a coali­tion was essen­tial. He had always favored coali­tions in grave times. Now he would call upon mem­bers of all par­ties to “stand by the coun­try in the hour of peril.”

The Grand Coalition

The Labour Par­ty leader Clement Attlee short­ly arrived, with Arthur Green­wood. Would they join a coali­tion under his lead­er­ship? They would. Both entered the Cab­i­net, Attlee as Lord Privy Seal. Churchill received a sim­i­lar com­mit­ment from Sir Archibald Sin­clair, leader of the Lib­er­al Par­ty, who became Air Min­is­ter. Mag­na­nim­i­ty pre­vailed. Defy­ing crit­i­cism from Cham­ber­lain friends-turned-enemies—he made Cham­ber­lain Lord Pres­i­dent of the Council.

It was a remark­able col­lec­tion of tal­ent and for­mer crit­ics. Chamberlain’s stal­wart ally Lord Hal­i­fax remained For­eign Sec­re­tary. Antho­ny Eden went to the War Office, A.V. Alexan­der to the Admi­ral­ty. It was prob­a­bly the eas­i­est task Churchill would have for many months. He reflect­ed that in the recent past, he had come “far more often into col­li­sion with the Con­ser­v­a­tive and Nation­al Gov­ern­ments than with the Labour and Lib­er­al Oppo­si­tions.” Churchill him­self remem­bered his chief past fail­ure, over the Dar­d­anelles. Then he had attempt­ed to direct “a car­di­nal oper­a­tion of war” with­out ple­nary author­i­ty. Not this time: “I assumed the office of Min­is­ter of Defence, with­out how­ev­er attempt­ing to define its scope and pow­ers.” Churchill continued:

Thus, then, on the night of the 10th of May, at the out­set of this mighty bat­tle, I acquired the chief pow­er in the State, which hence­forth I wield­ed in ever-grow­ing mea­sure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our ene­mies hav­ing sur­ren­dered uncon­di­tion­al­ly or being about to do so, I was imme­di­ate­ly dis­missed by the British elec­torate from all fur­ther con­duct of their affairs.

Hon­or to them all, hero­ic fig­ures from “all par­ties and all points of view,” who came togeth­er and, even­tu­al­ly, pre­vailed. On this night of the 10th of May, raise a glass to Old Excellence.


Any thoughts from read­ers will be post­ed here. An old friend, escaped from the Nazis to Bel­gium, got out in time to Amer­i­ca, had a dis­tin­guished aca­d­e­m­ic career, and  is still going strong…

I still vivid­ly remem­ber wak­ing up on this day 80 years ago in Antwerp and hear­ing thun­der but see­ing no clouds. My moth­er told me that war had begun, and I felt joy about not hav­ing to go to school. Only lat­er did I learn that this day was impor­tant for Mr. Churchill as well. A tru­ly unfor­get­table day, almost a cen­tu­ry ago. All through the years I always felt relief that things had got­ten bet­ter than that day. For the first time now, I lack that con­fi­dence. -M.W.
And, a more opti­mistic note:
My grand­fa­ther was a house­mas­ter at Win­ches­ter Col­lege in 1940. Then as today, Win­ches­ter has no cen­tral din­ing. Boys eat in their board­ing hous­es. One day in the sum­mer term of 1940 Phil, a small boy in my grandfather’s house was walk­ing back to his house, late for lunch. Phil loved my grand­fa­ther dear­ly, and told me this sto­ry at least twice. As he walked, he was behind two elder­ly house­mas­ters. Both had fought in World War I and one had been a POW. Nei­ther knew he was behind them. One said, “I real­ly don’t see any choice. We are going to have to sur­ren­der. There’s no pos­si­bil­i­ty of our sur­viv­ing oth­er­wise.” The sec­ond agreed. After lunch the wor­ried Phil asked my grand­fa­ther: “Is it real­ly true Sir? Are we going to have to sur­ren­der?” My grand­fa­ther didn’t pause: “Of course we are going to win!” Phil replied, “But Sir, how do you know?” My grand­fa­ther said: “Churchill says so, and that’s good enough for me!”  From that moment Phil nev­er doubt­ed that we would win the war. -R.B.

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