Winston Churchill’s First Day on the Job He’d Always Craved
As the Nazis began their inexorable advance across northern Europe, Churchill took the reins as prime minister. His one fear was that he was too late to avert disaster.
This is an excerpt from my new book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, which is being released this month. In this section, Winston Churchill, having been in the political wilderness for a decade, returns to power, becoming prime minister of Britain just as the Nazis attack across northwestern Europe. I am excerpting it here because I loved writing this part, I think because it shows Churchill at his best. Also, I was surprised that his meeting with William Stephenson isn’t better known.
On the morning of May 10, 1940, having been informed that the Germans had begun invading Holland and Belgium, and knowing he likely would take office later that day, Churchill breakfasted on fried eggs and bacon, and then enjoyed a cigar.
It was a hearty meal for an aging man on shaky ground. He was 65 years old, at a time of life when many people then retired. Instead, after decades of striving, he was on the verge of achieving his lifelong ambition to be the prime minister of Great Britain.
It would be an extraordinary day. His first meeting was at six o’clock that morning, with the ministers of war and air. At seven, there was another meeting, of the Military Co-ordination Committee. The full War Cabinet met at eight at the prime minister’s residence, reviewing the forlorn state of affairs—Germany was bombing Belgium and northern France, German paratroopers were landing in Belgium, British fighter squadrons were being moved to France. The HMS Kelly had been torpedoed off Belgium.
Given all this, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s first thought was that he should remain in office until the crisis passed. A message arrived later that morning at Churchill’s office: “Mr. Chamberlain was inclined to feel that the great battle which had broken upon us made it necessary for him to remain at his post.” No, came the response from Churchill’s allies: The crisis made it all the more urgent that Chamberlain give way to a new national government.
Churchill then received officials of the Dutch government. “Haggard and worn, with horror in their eyes, they had just flown over from Amsterdam.”
There was a second War Cabinet meeting at 11:30 a.m., to review more news of German bombings and paratroops. Then the Military Co-ordination Committee met again at one in the afternoon. Churchill lunched with Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper baron and his sometime political ally.
The War Cabinet met again at 4:30 p.m. News arrived that German firebombs were being dropped in Kent, in southeast England. The Germans had taken the Rotterdam airport. Six British fighters had been sent to intercept the German paratroop planes over Holland; only one returned.
A War Office message arrived reporting that German tanks and infantry had entered Belgium. Chamberlain then finally came to the point: He had decided to resign.
Chamberlain went to see King George VI. The king suggested that Halifax succeed Chamberlain. “I thought H was the obvious man,” the king wrote in his diary. But when Chamberlain said that Halifax was not the right fit at the moment, “I asked Chamberlain his advice, & he told me Winston was the man to send for.”
The king summoned Churchill, and the formalities of asking Churchill to form a government were observed. Outside Buckingham Palace, Churchill turned to his bodyguard, who congratulated him. Churchill teared up and replied, “I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.”
Churchill returned to his office at the Admiralty to form a government. He wrote to Chamberlain asking for his continued counsel and service. He asked Halifax to remain as foreign minister. He asked the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, to come see him that evening, and when he did, invited him to join the government and to submit the names of other Labour members who might join the Cabinet.
The Labour men actually were more at ease with him than were the Conservatives. Chamberlain’s aide John Colville wrote in his diary that day that Churchill was damned four times over, as “the greatest adventurer of modern political history … a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type.” He viewed Churchill’s ascension, he added, a bit unnecessarily, with “total horror.”
Neither Churchill’s memoirs nor Martin Gilbert’s exhaustive biography mentions it, but Churchill had one other meeting on May 10. He dined that night with a senior intelligence officer, William Stephenson, whom he was sending to America.
The new prime minister gave Stephenson three goals for his mission: Get military aid for Britain, counter enemy intelligence in the Western Hemisphere, and “eventually to bring the United States into the war.” It may have been the most significant order Churchill issued in the entire war, and it came just a few hours after he had become prime minister.
Churchill went to bed at 3:00 a.m., “conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.” For the first time in his life, he lay his head on the pillow as prime minister. “Ten years in the political wilderness” had ended, he later wrote. But for how long? There was a good chance he would be an interim leader, and indeed there were people betting that that was the likely outcome.
His own party did not rally to him even after he took office. Regarding the new prime minister, J. C. C. Davidson reported to his political ally, the former prime minister Stanley Baldwin, “The Tories don’t trust Winston.” This was no idle observation, given that Davidson was a former chairman of the Conservative Party. He hoped that Churchill would be a short-timer, predicting that “after the first clash of war is over it may well be that a sounder Government may emerge.” Peter Eckersley, a Tory MP, predicted that “Winston won’t last five months.”
From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks, published on May 23, 2017, by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Thomas E. Ricks.
Thomas E. Ricks is an adviser on national security at the New America Foundation, where he participates in its “Future of War” project. He was previously a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the prizewinning blog The Best Defense. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, he covered U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He is the author of several books, including The Generals, The Gamble, and the number one New York Times bestseller Fiasco, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.