A Personal View – April 2014
The Parliamentary Session in the British House of Commons on the 9th May 1940 was acrimonious. The emergency debate revolved around the catastrophe in Norway.
This campaign had been Churchill’s brainchild as the First Lord of the Admiralty. As Churchill rose to speak, he instinctively knew that this speech would probably be the most important speech in his entire political career. At 64 years of age, his life-long ambition of holding high political office could possibly remain a pipe-dream.
Main picture: Untrained British forces landing at Narvik, Norway
The subject of his speech was the defence of Chamberlain’s decision to authorise the military adventure in Norway that he had personally proposed.
How did such an incongruous situation arise? And more interestingly, why was Churchill the author of this misfortune appointed as Prime Minister the following day, the 10th May 1940 despite his proposal to land unprepared British forces in Norway near Trondheim and Narvik been so disastrous?
Being born in Blenheim Castle, as a boy Churchill believed that he had been born to greatness. At school he was a middling scholar with unimpressive grades. To his parents, he was a disappointment. His father, Randolph Churchill was Minister of the Exchequer in the Liberal government at the time.
Winston found his niche as a soldier and war correspondent, eventually entering Parliament as a Liberal candidate. Given his natural talent, he swiftly rose, being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty during WW1. Ever scheming, he conceived a scheme to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by a series of landings at Gallipoli on the Dardanelles. It was an audacious plan fitting in with his visions of derring-do and adventure. But the whole campaign went disastrously awry from its inception.
At home Churchill was crucified for the loss of 250,000 men, being mainly Anzac troops. He was forced out of office in disgrace.
From an execution point of view, Churchill was found wanting; his sharp inquisitive mind did not embrace and appreciate the practicalities of execution.
This flaw in his character would haunt Churchill again later in life. Despite a period as Home Secretary after WW1, Churchill was forced out of Cabinet both for his impetuosity as well as his political stance on various issues being at odds with the Liberal Government under Lloyd George.
These were his wilderness years. Being militarily inclined, he was the first senior British official to understand the rising menace of German re-armament in the 1930s. The rest remained blind to this possibility. Having just endured a costly war against the Kaiser, the establishment, as it is called nowadays, was unreceptive to his message. But Churchill was alive to the rising militarism under Adolph Hitler. As the lone voice, Winston’s beseeching for re-armament of Britain, went unheeded. As a sop, the rebuilding of the RAF was commenced in 1936.
On the declaration of war against Germany on the 3rd September 1939, Chamberlain, the Appeaser, brought Churchill back into government and appointed him First Lord of the Admiralty, a position that Churchill had last occupied in 1916.
Churchill rose to the challenge. He was clearly re-invigorated. Being a militarist at heart, his appointment spurred him on.
Being naturally adventurist, Churchill used his immense energies to find opportunities to deploy the Royal Navy in some way to deflect the German Army. Being a man of habit, like most humans, a naval landing on the periphery of Europe was what he envisaged.
With Germany being dependent on Swedish iron ore, what was more appropriate than a naval landing in neutral Norway to thwart these exports. The French favoured a landing at Trondheim whereas Churchill favoured further north at Narvik because this was the terminus of the railway line from Sweden. Agreement could not be reached as both parties were in disarray with their own agendas.
It was case of three ills conspiring against the Allies: the mission was ill-defined, the men were ill-equipped for snow & finally they were ill-served by their Commanders. Hence the campaign was an unmitigated disaster, an unremitting tide of woe much like it antecedent, Gallipoli.
Back in Whitehall, the Members of Parliament were restive. Even members of Chamberlain’s party had opposed Chamberlain’s feckless and irresolute prosecution of the war. He had authorised the bombardment of Germany, but not with bombs but only with pamphlets. These sought to enlighten them as to the folly of their ways. Being averse to war in spite of declaring war on Sunday 3rd September of the previous year, he still hoped to avoid an actual confrontation.
Ferment, speculation and consternation was rife in Whitehall. Even within the Ruling Party, the Conservatives, members were upset with Chamberlain’s leadership in this matter. They sensed implicitly that he did not possess the stamina or constitution for a war.
An Action Group under Clement Davies of the Labour Party was formed which questioned the conduct of the war. Surprisingly many Conservative MPs attend this meeting. Feelings were passionate and emotions mounted. Everybody could feel the tension in the air.
Simultaneously Churchill was in the debate for his political future. He was attempting to deflect criticism from Chamberlain for the disaster in Norway. Indirectly of course, he was defusing criticism of his decision to land in Norway.
This was a pivotal moment in Churchill’s life. For the second time in his career, he faced expulsion from office due to a foreign adventure. With the House of Commons roiling in ferment, he rose to speak. As usual, it was not an off-the-cuff speech, but one that he had deliberated on for many days. He had kept his secretary up to midnight as he continually redrafted the speech to provide the correct cadences and flow. He did not leave anything to chance.
This proved to be most decisive debate in the Houses of Parliament for more than 40 years. The unexpected happened when the time for the division arose. Instead of the customary vote along party lines, members of the Conservative Party rebelled and voted with the opposition Labour and Liberty Party.
A trenchant comment by Leo Amory using a Cromwellian phase, summed up the mood of the House, “In the name of God go.” Finally Lord George launched a blistering attack on Chamberlain informing him that he should follow his own advice and make the sacrifice that really mattered, his own resignation.
Lord Boothly saw Chamberlain visibly blanche. He had appealed to the friendship of his fellow Conservative MPs and now they had betrayed him.
Chamberlain cut a lonely figure. He was finished and he knew it.
As the morning broke of the 10th May 1940, the Germans invaded the Low Countries and France while Britain was politically in limbo.
As the PM, it was Chamberlain’s duty to recommend a successor. Lord Halifax whom he had been grooming, was the obvious choice. With his fellow-of-all-souls manner, sharp brain and undisputed charm, he made the obvious successor. Then there was Churchill, but Chamberlain was unsure given his history of misadventures. What Britain needed was a steady hand and not an adventurer.
Chamberlain called Halifax and Churchill aside into the Cabinet Room. According to JR Coleville, Chamberalain’s Private Secretary, he asked Churchill: “Do you see any reason why a Prime Minister in this day and age could still be in the House of Lords?”
Churchill was on the horns of a dilemma. If he answered yes, then Lord Halifax as a Peer could be Prime Minister and if he said no, that could mean that only he could be appointed.
In a quandary, Churchill walked to a window overlooked the Horse Guards Parade. He stared out intently at the partially filled parade grounds but refused to answer. Chamberlain probably knew that Halifax was not a war leader like him and that Churchill desired the job fervently.
Chamberlain rose. He went across to the Palace to meet King George VI in order to make his recommendation on his replacement.
As word arrived that the King had sent for Churchill, a feeling of utter despair and gloom pervaded the House of Commons.
The appointment of Churchill was a gamble and most felt that now was not the time to gamble. Instead – they felt – a steady hand was required.
Churchill had spent his whole life preparing for this position.
Now it would be the time for his tryst with destiny.
Other Articles on History:
This Day in History: 6th June 1944 – D-Day
The largest beach landing in history
Stalin: Abandoned on his Death Bed
The Narvik Landings Fiasco: In its wake why was its progenitor Churchill appointed as Prime Minister
Hitler: Was he complicit in the death of his half-niece Geli Raubal?
The Victoria Cross: What it takes to Acquire One
Nazi Germany: Was there Passive Resistance?