The Battle of Britain began in July of 1940 shortly after Churchill became Prime Minister
The Battle of Britain began in the summer of 1940 just a few months after Winton Churchill first became Prime Minister. It was fully expected that the Battle was a prelude of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the British Isles (Operation Sea Lion). The Battle was fought entirely by air with the German Luftwaffe eventually being successfully fought off by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF).
Nearly a month before the Battle of Britain began, Winston Churchill gave one of his most famous speeches. In the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 Churchill gave his famous ‘Finest Hour’ speech.
Listen to a clip and read the full text of the speech here.
On the 20th of August 1940, as the battle raged on, Winston Churchill give another of his famous rousing speeches. Paying tribute to the fortitude of the Royal Air Force, he coined one of his most famous lines, ”Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
In 2010 on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, actor Robert Hardy, who portrayed Churchill in several feature films, read his ‘The Few’ speech. Click the image below to watch.
Read the full text of Churchill’s ‘The Few’ speech here.
For more information on this subject, visit Churchill Central’s Battle of Britain page.
C. Brian Kelly’s book The Best Little Stories of Winston Churchill includes a section on the Battle of Britain. Follow this link to read an excerpt.
Learn more with these Battle of Britain resources:
News improves for the Britain on the Eastern Front and North Africa
In early October Churchill went to Scotland to receive the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh and to visit the Home Fleet. The Prime Minister was showing great fatigue and stress and so he made several journeys to rest at Chequers, but he was seldom alone. Among his visitors were Smuts, Attlee, Cripps and numerous senior military officers. His stress showed in his response to an article in the New Statesman about British policy in India. He protested to Bracken: “Pray stop any repetition of any New Statesman comments outside this country till you have been personally consulted on the text of each message.”
This period saw the turning of “The Hinge of Fate.” As the Russians stopped the Germans at Stalingrad, the British opened an offensive at El Alamein. As Rommel’s forces were in full retreat in East Africa, the Allies landed in the West, under “Operation Torch.”
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
After Alexander advised Churchill to “Ring out the bells” to celebrate victory in Egypt, Churchill told a Lord Mayor’s luncheon at Mansion House: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Churchill’s Private Secretary, John Martin, recorded the visit to Mansion House in his diary: “These have been exceptionally active days. I do not remember any more so since the summer of 1940. For the Lord Mayor’s luncheon the PM and Mrs. Churchill drove into the City in an open car … loudspeaker vans had announced his coming and we made a triumphal progress along the Strand and Fleet Street, up Ludgate Hill and past St. Paul’s. There were huge and enthusiastic crowds, with scarcely enough police to control them, and at the last stage we had difficulty in getting through.”
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Trouble in North Africa and the Far East
Harry Hopkins and General Marshall visited Churchill to relay President Roosevelt’s “heart and mind” concerning a second front. They told the Prime Minister that American public opinion was weighted toward priority against Japan, but that American leaders considered Germany the primary enemy. They agreed on a cross-channel invasion in 1943 and named it Operation Roundup. In the meantime, they would engage the enemy in Africa and, Churchill hoped, Norway. The Germans prepared for the cross-channel assault by appointing Field Marshal Von Rundstedt Commander in Chief, Atlantic Wall Defences.
Losing patience with the pace of war in North Africa, Churchill ordered General Auchinleck to engage the enemy, but Rommel was the first to take the initiative with an attack on 26 May. Churchill pressed the importance of not losing Malta as a supply base, and sent the following message to Auchinleck: “Your decision to fight it out to the end is most cordially endorsed. We shall sustain you whatever the result. Retreat would be fatal. This is a business not only of armour but of willpower.”
While the battles raged in Africa there was also considerable action elsewhere. Bataan and Corregidor fell but the Japanese Navy was stopped at the Battle of Midway. In Europe the Allies sent 1,000 bombers against Cologne. Germany lost a potential successor to Hitler with the assassination of Heydrich. As the Germans waged campaigns against partisans throughout the Eastern Front, news reached Warsaw that gas was being used on Jews in Auschwitz.
Churchill decided that plans for operations had to be finalized so he set out to visit Roosevelt in America. Before leaving he advised the King to appoint Anthony Eden as Prime Minister should anything happen on this trip. The British and American leaders met first at Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, New York. On returning to Washington, Churchill was informed that Tobruk had fallen. This was one of the heaviest blows he received during the war, comparable to the loss of Singapore.
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Churchill’s Government defeats a No Confidence motion in the House
As Churchill’s Government defeated a No Confidence motion in the House of Commons, the Eighth Army finally stopped Rommel’s advance in Egypt. Churchill’s fear that the fate of Singapore would befall Cairo was not to be realized.
On 19 July a high level American delegation including General Marshall, Admiral King and Harry Hopkins arrived at Chequers to discuss “Operation Sledgehammer,” the invasion of the Cherbourg Peninsula. Although Churchill also favoured “Operation Jupiter,” the invasion of Norway, the British proposed “Operation Gymnast,” the invasion of French North Africa.
“The past week represented a turning point in the whole war and that now we are on our way shoulder to shoulder.”
The British view prevailed and the Americans agreed to an attack against North Africa, renamed “Operation Torch.” Roosevelt expressed the view that “the past week represented a turning point in the whole war and that now we are on our way shoulder to shoulder.”
They would also require the shoulder of the Russian bear and Churchill determined to visit Stalin in his own den to gain support fox his invasion sequence of Africa, then Italy, then France. On the way to Moscow, he visited Egypt to investigate personally the need for a command change in the Middle East. Because Churchill would have to fly in an unpressurized airplane he practised using an oxygen mask, which he asked to be adapted to allow him to smoke while wearing it.
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Churchill and Roosevelt sign the United Nations Charter
On New Year’s Day Churchill returned from Ottawa to Washington where he and Roosevelt signed the United Nations Charter. A few days later he flew to Pompano Beach, Florida, for a short vacation.
While in Pompano Beach, Florida, Churchill visited the home of Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., on Hillsboro Beach for five days in January. Churchill had come to the United States on 22 December 1941, to confer with Roosevelt on the grant strategy of the war. This meeting was known as the Arcadia Conference.
On 5 January 1942, Churchill flew to Florida from Washington for a brief rest.
Churchill has a short stay in Washington and flew on to Pompano Beach, Florida. Churchill flew to Florida in an airplane provided by Chief of Staff General Marshall, accompanying him were Sir Charles Wilson, John Martin and Tommy Thompson. They stayed in a bungalow provided by US Secretary of State Stettinius. They landed at West Palm Beach airport and then drove on to Pompano Beach. Word was put out that a Mr. Lobb, an invalid requesting quiet, was staying at the house. The Prime Minister and his aids were closely guarded during the by the Secret Service during the trip. The press guessed they were there but left them alone.
6 January – Pompano Beach, Florida. Churchill relaxed by bathing in the ocean. Two couriers a day flew down to Pompano from Washington with a constant stream of correspondence.
Churchill to Roosevelt, 6 January 1942
Dear Mr. President,
We have been greeted on arrival by this cutting from the local paper. This shows that all the trouble you took about secrecy has been in vain. Tommy [Detective Thompson] is plainly identifiable.
[signed] Winston S. Churchill
The “cutting” was a cartoon from the Miami Daily News, 5 January 1942 showing two overweight middle-aged men flopped on a beach. The clipping was captioned “Hard work is the thing that will win this war — we must keep at it night and day.”
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The Empire of Japan attacks the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor
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.
Churchill enjoyed “the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
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.”
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Churchill and Roosevelt meet at the Atlantic Conference in Canada
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. “
“The United States will wage war but not declare it.”
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.
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American support comes in the form of Lend-Lease
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.
“Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
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.
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The Battle of Britain is underway
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.”
The President called on America to become the “arsenal of democracy.”
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.
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Hitler issues orders (and then postpones) Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain
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.
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Churchill becomes Prime Minister
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.
‘This was their finest hour’.”
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.
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Concerns about the French Allies
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.”
“Now the ice will melt; and the Germans are the masters of the North.”
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.”
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