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Finest Hour: September 1940-1941



The year ended with what Churchill later called "the war still in its sinister trance" In a Christmas card he told Admiral Dudley Pound that "I have the feeling (which may be corrected at any moment) that the Kaiser's Germany was a much tougher customer than Nazi Germany."

Clementine helped on the home front. Lady Diana Duff Cooper commented that "she makes us all knit jerseys as thick as sheep's fleeces, for which the minesweepers must bless her."

In January Churchill visited the continent where he became concerned about the inferior equipment and lackadaisical attitude of his French allies. He wanted to send troops into Norway but it was pointed out that the Canadians who would be used were not yet trained to fight on skis.

Lauding the fight of Finland, Churchill criticized the neutral countries. "Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, that the crocodile will eat him last."  The reaction in Norway, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Belgium was often hostile. Criticism, however, did not dissuade him. "Criticism in a body politic is like pain in a human body. It is not pleasant, but where would the body be without it."

At a luncheon in his honour in late February he pledged himself loyally to serve the "Captain" for the duration of the voyage and Prime Minister Chamberlain indicated his gratitude. In early March his friend Maxine Elliot died in France. Meanwhile, overwhelmed Finns acquiesced in an imposed treaty with Russia. In the War Cabinet only Hankey shared Churchill's views for a landing in Norway. An angry Churchill wrote Halifax: "Now the ice will melt; and the Germans are the masters of the North."

He also had to fight attempts at peace. He told the "peace movement" at home that "the only course was to fight to the finish" and he rejected the efforts of United States Under-Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, to find a peace solution which would not require "the elimination of Herr Hitler."

In mid-March Hitler met Mussolini at the Brenner Pass and Paul Reynaud succeeded Edouard Daladier as Prime Minister of France. Reynaud and George Mandel were the French politicians closest to Churchill and his fighting spirit.

In early April the Allied Supreme War Council was agreeing to mine the harbours of Norway while Hitler was issuing order for the Germany invasion of the Scandanavian country. Everyone was aware of the importance of Swedish ore to the German war effort and the Norweigan port of Narvik was the port through which most of it was shipped.

Churchill wanted to attack German supply lines by floating mines on the Rhine but the French feared German retaliation. Churchill went to Paris to convince his reluctant allies but was unsuccessful. Unfortunately his trip to Paris also delayed action in Norway and despite Chamberlain's quip that Hitler had "missed the bus" German paratroopers were dropped on major centres in Denmark and Norway.

Ever optimistic, Churchill felt that Hitler had committed a"grave strategic error" because his forces could now be isolated by British naval forces. His colleagues supported action in Norway if only to keep Italy neutral but there was a sharp division as to what ports should be the targets. There was considerable pressure to target Trondheim, much to the south of Narvik. There was also some hope that the Germans could be caught in a pincer movement from landings at several other ports. All of this planning was to no avail because heavy snow and bitter cold weather impeded all British efforts.

On 1 May Churchill was given more direction of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and speculation on the future of Chamberlain's government increased. to one observer it looked like 1915 over again but this time Churchill was seen as a possible beneficiary. Clementine was well aware of the precarious nature of politics and told her husband that only his long-standing opposition to Hitler had saved him from being blamed for Norway. There was considerable discontent among Tory backbenchers focused through the Watching Committee chaired by Lord Salisbury.

On 7 May a Parliamentary debate on the war effort began. Speaker after speaker, on both sides of the House, castigated the Government for its failures and its lack of will. Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, bedecked in full uniform including all medals, entered the House to a resounding applause. But the most devastating blow came when Leo Amery quoted Oliver Cromwell's words to the Long Parliament: "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

His supporters did everything they could to protect Churchill from the attacks and when he accepted responsibility for Norway, Lloyd George said that Churchill 'must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues. "

Despite a three-line Whip the Government received a majority of only 81 out of a possible 213. As his opponents sang Rule Britannia or shouted "Go! Go! " a downtrodden Neville Chamberlain left the House. When Labour refused to serve in a National Coalition headed by Chamberlain the fate of the Government was sealed.

On 10 May, as the German Blitzkrieg was being unleashed against Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, King George VI summoned Churchill to Buckingham Palace to ask him to form a government. To many it was inevitable given the circumstances. Many years before Harold Nicolson had prophesied in Vanity Fair: "He is a man who leads forlorn hopes, and when the hopes of England become forlorn, he will once again be summoned to leadership." Even Stanley Baldwin had remarked in 1935: "if there is going to be a war - and no one can say there is not - we must keep him fresh to be our War Prime Minister." This time Baldwin wrote him: ". . . from the bottom of my heart I wish you all that is good - health and strength of mind and body - for the intolerable burden that now lies on you."

Churchill did not go to bed until 3:00 a.m. and as he later wrote: ". . . although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had not need for cheering dream. Facts are better than dreams. " The facts as he saw them would lead to ultimate victory and, as he was to tell the British people, his policy would be "victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. " - had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

His greatest burden was supervising the withdrawal of Allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, but when General Alexander finally left on June 2 more than 335,000 men had been carried "out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead."

On 14 June Paris fell and as Hitler prepared to go to Compiegne to accept the French surrender Churchill sent out his most famous call to arms: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'."

As Churchill and all Britain waited for an imminent German invasion, Hitler was ordering that plans be prepared that would first establish German air superiority.

While inspecting the coastal defences, Churchill dined with the commander, General Montgomery. It was later said that Monty told the Prime Minister that he neither drank nor smoked and was 100% fit. To which Churchill replied, "I both drink and smoke and am 200% fit. " In his memoirs, Montgomery called the story of Churchill's retort an embellishment to the true version."

The British had considerable concerns about the relationship of France to its German conquerors, most particularly the role of the French fleet. The French were presented with several alternatives, all of which denied their ships to Germany's service. Some forces came over willingly to Britain and others were demilitarized, but at Oran, the Royal Navy was required to put the French fleet out of action by force. The attack on Britain's erstwhile ally brought Churchill much personal sadness and anguish but he later learned that the action had convinced President Roosevelt that Britain and the Commonwealth could and would fight on.

After observing an exercise by Canadian troops, Churchill advised that they should be redeployed against the invasion rather than for their original purpose - the defence of Ireland.

The initial threat to Britain would come from the air. On 10 July the Luftwaffe made its first large-scale bombing raid. The first defence against the bombers was Fighter Command, whose commander was Sir Hugh Dowding. Although some wanted to remove Dowding, Churchill told his Air Minister, "I think he is one of the very best men you have got ... he has my full confidence. "

On 16 July Hitler issued an order for "a landing operation against England", codenamed "Sea Lion." Churchill was also in an aggressive, offensive mood and many who met with him were reinforced in their commitment to victory. Critical to that success was aid from the United States, and Churchill made it clear that Britain was prepared "to shoot the wad" in paying for this assistance.

By the end of July underground head- quarters were prepared for Churchill and his staff at Storey's Gate in Whitehall. Throughout the Blitz, British forces were directed from these underground Cabinet War Rooms.  Strategy was greatly influenced by information gained through decoding of the German system Enigma. Because so much data was obtained through these decrypts, Churchill instructed that everything come to him edited by Major Desmond Morton.

Of great concern was the Duke of Windsor, who had been in France and was now travelling in Spain and Portugal, while being assiduously courted by the Nazis. To keep him out of enemy hands and still far from his home country he was appointed Governor of the Bahamas. While Churchill had been a strong supporter of Edward VIII, to his own political detriment, he now cautioned the Duke not to take "a view of the war, or about the Germans, or about Hitlerism, which is different from that adopted by the British nation and Parliament. "

Churchill's relationship with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth continued to improve although, Colville noted, they were "a little ruffled by the offhand way he treats them - says he will come at six, puts it off until 6:30 by telephone, then comes at seven."

On 14 August Churchill received a message from Roosevelt offering destroyers and aircraft in return for naval and air bases on British soil in North America, and a promise to send the British fleet to other parts t)f the Empire if the "waters around Britain became untenable. " Churchill readily accepted because no matter what his other problems were, he fervently believed that with United States assistance he would ultimately win.

Meanwhile the air war raged over Britain. On 20 August Churchill recognized the contributions of the young men who were daily challenging the German airforce with his comment, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Later, Asquith's daughter wrote him, "[That sentence] will live as long as words are spoken and remembered. Nothing so simple, so majestic and so true has been said in so great a moment of human history. You have beaten your old enemies 'the Classics' into a cocked hat! "

Greater challenges were still to come. On 24 August Germany began daylight bombing of central London and on the night of 7 September over two hundred German bombers attacked London. The next day Churchill visited the damaged streets and, according to Ismay, received responses like, "it was good of you to come, Winnie. We thought you'd come. We can take it. Give it 'em back." He broadcast to the nation, speaking defiantly of "a people who will not flinch or weary of the struggle - hard and protracted though it will be. "

Likewise the conquered people of Europe looked to Churchill as a beacon of hope. And again he responded. "Be of good cheer, " he broadcast to the people of Czechoslovakia. "The time of your deliverance will come. The soul of freedom is deathless; it cannot, and will not, perish."

On 17 September, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion.

Although Hitler cancelled Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain, and the Battle of Britain was all but won by mid-September, the threat to ultimate British victory in the war was made more ominous by the pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan on 27 September. This in no way diminished Churchill's defiance. He reminded people, never maltreat the enemy by halves."

On 9 October Churchill accepted the leadership of the Conservative Party, a remarkable achievement considering his relationship with the Conservative establishment since he had left them to join the Liberals in 1904. This action was taken despite the vehement opposition of Clementine. Their daughter Mary has written: "[Clementine] never altered her opinion that this step was a mistake, and that it alienated much of the support which Winston derived from the working classes through the vindication of his pre-war prophecies and his record as a war leader. "

The bombing continued. Among the more notable events: on 10 October St. Paul's Cathedral was hit; on 15 October the Germans gave priority to night bombing; on 14 November Coventry was heavily bombed. In reprisal the British conducted their own bombing raids on numerous targets, including Berlin.

Churchill gave much thought to Germany and Germans exclusive of Hitler and Nazism. He commented to friends that "a Hun alive is a war in prospect" but, looking ahead to the end of the war, he knew that the mistakes of the previous war must not be repeated and that "Germany must remain in the European family. "

While confident of ultimate victory, he believed it would come only with the United States as an ally. One impediment was the US Ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, whose Irish-American biases left him with little sympathy for Britain and whose reports to Roosevelt showed no confidence in British victory. But the President had other eyes and ears: Harry Hopkins, Wendell Willkie and Kennedy's replacement as Ambassador, John Winant were staunch supporters of the British cause. Carl Spaatz and "Wild Bill' Donovan, then colonels but later to play leading roles in the US war effort, visited Britain and drew quite different conclusions from Kennedy's.

The initial stages in the US-British alliance would involve the provision of essential supplies to Britain. Their importance was recognized by Churchill who declared that submarines were a greater menace to Britain's survival than bombers. On 17 December Roosevelt announced the policy of Lend-Lease and on 29 December the President called on America to become the "arsenal of democracy."


Churchill sent Roosevelt a telegram of thanks in response to the President's "arsenal of victory" promise, but he also expressed Britain's concern about her ability to pay for armaments.

In early January, Harry Hopkins arrived in Britain. He was the first of several envoys who were making personal assessments of the situation on behalf of President Roosevelt. He would be followed shortly by Wendell Willkie and Averell Harriman.

As Hopkins and Churchill talked of ways that America could help, the Lend-Lease Bill was making its way through the American Congress.

In early February, Churchill broadcast to the British people that support was being promised and told the American people: "Give us the tools and we will finish the job."

Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies visited and noted that "Churchill's course is set. There is not defeat, in his heart." This course, which was "to extirpate Hitlerism from Europe," had yet to face many perils: Rommel had brought new life to German forces in Africa; Turkey and Bulgaria sided with Germany; the Blitz continued; Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece; Operation Barbarossa began on the Eastern Front-, there was growing evidence of Japanese aggression in the Far East; and shipping losses in the Battle of the Atlantic, "the blackest cloud which we had to face," continued.

Nevertheless, Churchill telegraphed to President Roosevelt: "Corinthians II, Chapter 6,Verse 2."

The Royal Air Force attacks on German fortifications in Northern France, the Channel ports and Germany itself did not impede the rapid German advance into the Soviet Union.

Churchill wrote Roosevelt that he had to be ready for a possible invasion in September. The President's encouraging response promised increased production, particularly of tanks, and a widening commitment of the American navy in the North Atlantic.

Churchill's priority of creating allies in Russia and America was dealt a blow in a speech by General Auchinleck, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, who doubted Russia's chances of withstanding the German invasion. Churchill admonished Auchinleck: "It is a mistake for Generals in High Command to make speeches or give interviews to Press correspondents. "

On July 12 Britain and the Soviet Union agreed not to make a separate peace with Germany. Despite his earlier praise for the valiant Finns, Churchill now criticized them for attacking Britain's new ally.

On July 18 Churchill received Stalin's first request for a second front. He replied that Britain's commitments in the Middle East and in the Battle of the Atlantic strained their resources. He also reminded the Soviet leader that Britain had been fighting alone for more than a year.

Churchill wanted a more aggressive stance in the Middle East and was frustrated that Auchinleck seemed as cautious as Wavell. He called the General home in order to encourage him to prepare for a fall offensive.

On August 4 Churchill boarded the battleship Prince of Wales to meet President Roosevelt in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. This conference had originated in Harry Hopkins' trip to London in January. Roosevelt pretended to be on a fishing trip off the New England coast but he was actually steaming north aboard the cruiser Augusta.

It was important to both men that they take the measure of the other. It was also important that the world realize that an alliance of the two countries with a common culture was emerging. Churchill hoped that this realization might forestall a German invasion.

The commitment Churchill received from Roosevelt was that "the United States will wage war but not declare it." On August 14 the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom proclaimed The Atlantic Charter. While committing themselves to "the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny" they also stated their belief that "all the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force."

In his broadcast to the British people on August 24 Churchill acknowledged that the prime importance of the meeting was symbolic - the unity of the English-speaking peoples. Also important in that union was Canada and this was acknowledged at a luncheon for the visiting Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, at Mansion House on September 4, at which Churchill called Canada "the linchpin of the English-speaking world."

There were two notable progenitors which would significantly contribute to eventual German defeat: on September 12 the first snow fell on the Eastern Front and on September 26 the Western Desert Force was renamed the British Eighth Army.

At home lock Colville left to become a fighter pilot. Churchill lost a Private Secretary who not only had served his predecessor in the same role, but who had also exclaimed in his diary 'God Forbid!' at the thought of Churchill becoming Prime Minister. Colville subsequently became a loyal and invaluable aide and friend to the entire Churchill family. Historians temporarily lost an invaluable primary source in the form of his insightful and authoritative diaries which would be resumed on his recall to the Prime Minister's office in December 1943.

The war raged on the Eastern Front as the Germans began their offensive towards the Don River and the Red Army counterattacked in the Ukraine and at Leningrad. The German hold on France tightened as pre-war leaders Daladier, Reynaud and Blum were arrested by Petain. Although Churchill had regular meetings with King George VI, on 28 October His Majesty and the Queen bestowed a signal honour on the Prime Minister by coming to lunch with him at No. 10 Downing Street.

Churchill knew that he was going to have to change the command structure of the military if he was going to win the war, and that changes must start at the top with the replacement of Sir John Dill as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He selected General Sir Alan Brooke because of "Brookie ‘s" "combination of wisdom and vigour which I have found refreshing." Sir John Dill was appointed Governor of Bombay and later went to the United States as Head of the British Joint Staff Mission.

Events began to focus Churchill’s attention on the Far East. In October, Tojo became Premier of Japan. In early December, Canada was asked to send forces to Hong Kong and the battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sent to Singapore. On the evening of 7 December Churchill was at Chequers with Averell Harriman and American Ambassador Winant when the radio announced "something about the Japanese attacking the Americans." According to Winant, Churchill jumped to his feet, announcing "we shall declare war on Japan." Winant replied: "Good God, you can’t declare war on a radio announcement." Churchill immediately telephoned Roosevelt and assured him that Britain’s declaration of war would follow close behind that of the United States.

That night, confident that with the United States now in the war victory was inevitable, Churchill enjoyed "the sleep of the saved and thankful."

Within days of sending Anthony Eden to Russia, Churchill boarded HMS Duke of York for America. He wanted to encourage Russia’s resistance to the Germans so no pressure was brought upon them to declare war against Japan. Eden thought that Russian support could be ensured by recognizing its western border, established by the nefarious agreement with Hitler. Churchill adamantly opposed any deal concerning these borders. To Eden he telegraphed: "We have never recognized the 1941 frontiers of Russia except de facto. They were acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler. The transfer of the peoples of the Baltic states to Soviet Russia against their will would be contrary to all the principles for which we are fighting this war and would dishonour our cause." Recognition of the subjugation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would, in Churchill’s view, be a violation of the Atlantic Charter.

Roosevelt had suggested a meeting for mid-January but Churchill was anxious to meet quickly in order to establish at least two priorities: the importance of the naval situation and primacy of Europe in the American war effort. The meetings of the British and American military and political leaders established the defeat of Germany as the key to victory in the war.

On Christmas Eve, from the balcony of the White House, Churchill talked of feeling at home while so far from his native land:

"Whether it be the ties of blood on my mother’s side, or the friendships I have developed here over many years of active life, or the commanding sentiment of comradeship in the common cause of great peoples who speak the same language, who kneel at the same altars, and, to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals, I cannot feel myself a stranger here..

The day after Christmas he told a joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives: "I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own."

Later that evening, Churchill probably suffered what his doctor, Sir Charles Wilson, diagnosed as coronary insufficiency, otherwise known as angina pectoris. Knowledge of this attack remained between doctor and patient only. His health did not prevent him from travelling by train to Ottawa where he addressed the Canadian Parliament. Expressing confidence in the British Empire’s ability to prevail he declared: "We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."

Reviewing the war, he said that when he had told the French that whatever they did, Britain would continue to fight on alone, the French generals had commented that in three weeks Britain would have "her neck wrung like a chicken." He then uttered one of his most famous and defiant remarks of the war: "Some Chicken! [pause] Some Neck!" The Canadian Parliamentarians roared and applauded. They had just seen all the characteristics which had brought Britain this far. The road ahead would be long and hard, but victory was now surely inevitable.