War

War Hero Now with international fame, Churchill wins his first seat in the House

On his arrival in Durban in December 1899, Churchill was hailed a war hero after his daring escape from the Boer POW camp. His new fame allowed him to override the objections of the War Office and he continued to assume the dual role of officer – with a local volunteer unit, the South African Light Horse – and war correspondent.

For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was feted on the streets of Oldham.

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The US Enters the War On 7 December 1941, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor

Back in August 1941, and the signature of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt hadn’t been ready or able to enter the war. But the situation changed dramatically on 7 December 1941.

Churchill was at Chequers (the Prime Minister’s official country residence) with the American Ambassador and Averell Harriman when news of the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor came on the radio. Churchill immediately called the President to confirm the news and then on 8 December, Britain declared war on Japan.

The partial involvement of the US and the Pearl Harbor attack led Hitler to declare war on the US three days later. Did Churchill (and Roosevelt) know of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Find out.

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The Soviet Union – The Other Ally

A more unexpected ally had already been found in the form of the Soviet Union: an uncomfortable ally, certainly, but Churchill couldn’t afford to be choosy and realized the necessity of the relationship. When Hitler invaded Russia on 22 June 1941, Germany had unwittingly played into the hands of the Allies. Churchill seized on the advantage. And so the ‘grand alliance’ – of ‘The Big Three’ – was established.

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Summer 1940 Churchill's finest hour

The summer of 1940 was, as Churchill called it, Britain’s ‘finest hour’. It was also his. When the German armies conquered France, Britain found itself in the line of attack. With German U-boats patrolling the seas and soon to have bases on the Atlantic, and German bombers marshalling on the coast of France, Britain faced its first serious threat of invasion since 1805.

The months of June, July, August and September were to prove Churchill’s moment of ‘Destiny’. For more background information, see the Imperial War Museum’s material on 1940.

I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
Churchill, The Second World War

Many found it difficult to see how Britain could avoid being defeated. Victory seemed impossible. But Churchill was passionately opposed to negotiating with Hitler. The War Cabinet did consider a compromise peace – or at least the offer of mediation, by Italy, between Germany and the allies – but Churchill argued strongly against this. He was convinced that Hitler would renege on any promises or agreement, just as he had done back in 1938.

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The Blitz

After failing to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned to night bombing raids against London and other British cities. The ‘Blitz’, as it became known, aimed to disrupt production and break morale. London was the main target and suffered the heaviest bombing but, by the end of the war, there was hardly a large city or town in Britain that had not come under attack.

As the winter wore on, the air raids became heavier. But the repeated heavy raids would not crush the morale of the British people. The ‘Blitz’ spirit kept them going. And Churchill played his part in keeping up morale. He made sure he was frequently in the public eye, constantly travelling around the country, visiting ammunition factories, shipyards, the troops.

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Dunkirk 'Wars are not won by evacuations.'

Despite Churchill’s visits to Paris to stiffen French resolve, his attempts proved futile as the German blitzkrieg shattered the French resistance and drove the British Expeditionary Force back to the Channel ports. A pause in the German attacks between 27 May and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over three hundred thousand British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster into what came to be seen as a success; the saving of lives by the ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.

For more on Dunkirk, and a collection of personal accounts from some of those who took part in the mass evacuation, see the BBC’s Archives.

We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.
Churchill, speech of 4 June 1940

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South Africa The POW escapes and makes his way to Durban

In his last youthful military adventure, Churchill joined British forces in the Boer War. Churchill set off, armed with the important things in life – sixty bottles of spirits, twelve bottles of Rose’s Lime Juice and a supply of claret – and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899.

He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. He made a dramatic escape the following month, making his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. His dispatches from the Boer War were republished as two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).

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Cuba Churchill was able to get himself posted to Cuba as an observer

Churchill had a period of leave and managed to obtain his first assignment as a war correspondent for the newspaper. He was reporting on the rebellion against Spanish rule by guerilla rebels in Cuba when he first came under fire. It was also in Cuba that he first refined his well-known taste for fine Cuban cigars. He was attached to the Spanish forces as an observer but his writings reveal considerable sympathies for the Cuban rebels.

Read more about Churchill’s time in Cuba here.

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The Battle of Britain The Royal Air Force battles the German Luftwaffe

On 18 June, Churchill warned the British people that the ‘battle of France’ was over and the ‘battle of Britain’ was about to begin. His words were proved right. As early summer gave way to July and August, the threat of invasion loomed over Britain.

If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies, choking in his own blood upon the ground.
Churchill, as quoted in Hugh Dalton’s Second World War Diary, entry for 28 May 1940

Churchill, seeing that control of the skies was vital, put businessman Lord Beaverbrook in charge of Aircraft Production (as Minister) and encouraged British scientists to improve radar defences and counter German technology. In August, the Royal Air Force managed to inflict heavy casualties on the German Luftwaffe and, in September, the German pilots transferred their attention from the coastal airfields and those in south-west England to London, allowing the fighter bases respite from attack but putting British people in the city at much greater risk. In early September a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred German bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in London’s East End almost continuously, day and night.

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‘Battle of Britain Day’ – 15 September 1940 German invasion of the British Isles is averted

The Churchills with their grandson Winston

The Churchills with their grandson, Randolph’s son, who was born at the height of the London blitz, 10 October 1940. © Churchill Archives, Broadwater Collection

On 24 August, German night bombers aiming for the airfields accidentally destroyed several London homes due to a navigation error, killing civilians. Churchill retaliated immediately by bombing Berlin the following night.

Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights, and other British cities were targeted. But a real turning point in Britain’s fortunes in the war occurred on 15 September.

In an attempt to shatter British morale, now that an invasion began to seem increasingly unrealistic, Hitler sent two enormous waves of German bombers. But their attacks were scattered by the RAF; the German defeat caused Hitler to order, two days later, the postponement of preparations for the invasion. In the face of mounting losses of men and aircraft, the Luftwaffe switched from daylight to night-time bombing and although fighting continued in the air for several more weeks, and British cities continued to be bombed, German tactics to achieve air superiority ahead of an invasion had failed.

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At Home

Shortly after his return from Fulton, Churchill began to write his war memoirs. With a team of researchers working on his behalf, and a very ordered (if somewhat laborious) approach to drafting and editing, he soon had the first volume finished. appeared in six volumes between 1948 and 1954.

Churchill never claimed the memoirs were ‘history’; they were rather a contribution to history. Although their very breadth and coverage gave the impression that they were a definitive account, there were omissions, of course. was Churchill’s interpretation of the events, the work of a man seeking to place his role in the war – and in history. The books sold well, with a combined first printing of over 800,000 copies.

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Churchill as Leader After Number 10 was bombed, Churchill spent much of the war in ‘the Annexe’

For much of the war, Churchill lived not at 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, but in ‘the Annexe’, a building nearby in Whitehall. Underneath this, were the Cabinet War Rooms (now a museum called the Churchill War Rooms) – a ‘bunker’ – where he and his government were protected from the worst the German bombers could rain down on London.

He spent a lot of his time here in meetings (although he only ever slept in the bedroom on three occasions), and ran it on ‘Winston time’; colleagues were expected to adapt to his way of working, staying up late at night to respond to his demands for updates on the war situation, analyzing reports and taking instructions (often with ‘Action this Day’ labels attached).

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Winston Wept: The Extraordinary Lachrymosity and Romantic Imagination of Winston Churchill

Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016 Page 34 By Andrew Roberts Andrew Roberts is the author of many books, including, most recently, the major new biography Napoleon. His next book will be a full-scale biography of Churchill. This article is adapted from his speech to the 33rd International Churchill Conference in Washington, D. C., 29 October […]

Books, Arts, & Curiosities – Leader of the Pack

Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 38 Roger Hermiston, All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition, 1940–45, Aurum Press, 406 pages, £20. ISBN 978–1781313312 Review by John Campbell John Campbell’s books include major biographies of F. E. Smith, Aneurin Bevan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and most recently Roy Jenkins. The title of this book derives […]

Books, Arts, & Curiosities – The War at Sea

Finest Hour 172, Spring 2016

Page 46

Review by Kevin D. McCranie

Jonathan Dimbleby, The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War, Viking, 2015, 560 pages, £17. ISBN 978-0241186602


Battle of the AtlanticThe Battle of the Atlantic, the longest sustained campaign of the European theater in the Second World War, began with the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939. It continued to rage right up to the German surrender in 1945. Yet, the term “Battle of the Atlantic” is a misnomer, according to Jonathan Dimbleby. Rather than a traditional Trafalgar-like battle, the Atlantic struggle encompassed a series of naval campaigns over an expansive geographical region from the icepack in the Arctic deep into the vastness of the South Atlantic. The primary German weapon was the U-boat. The desired victim was merchant shipping with the object of attacking Britain’s greatest vulnerability: its critical dependence on resources coming from overseas.

The subtitle of Dimbleby’s book, How the Allies Won the War, is certainly provocative but reflects his thesis that the Atlantic battle was the decisive struggle in the war. To prove his point he quotes President Franklin Roosevelt: “I believe the outcome of this struggle is going to be decided in the Atlantic” (xxvi). Nothing, to Dimbleby, more clearly explains the battle’s significance. He maintains that nearly everything else in the war was contingent upon the grinding, attritional campaign occurring in the stormy waters of the Atlantic.
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