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Facing Hitler Alone

Facing Hitler Alone: The Leadership of Churchill: The legacy of Winston
Churchill has survived into the 21st century with its almost mythical qualities
well intact. History remembers him, without overstating, as the eloquently
spoken, sharp-witted British Prime Minister who,
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Category:
History
Paper Title:
Facing Hitler Alone: The Leadership of Churchill
Text:
The legacy of Winston Churchill has survived into the 21st century with its
almost mythical qualities well intact. History remembers him, without
overstating, as the eloquently spoken, sharp-witted British Prime Minister who,
through determination, perseverance, and principle, took his country’s burden
upon his shoulders and turned what could have been the British Empire’s final
hour into, as Churchill emphatically declared, “their finest hour.”
While Churchill’s legendary status is well-known (and well-deserved), the
methods and policies by which he employed to prepare his island for the Nazi
onslaught are not as well known. The most commonly cited example of Churchill’s
leadership is, of course, his “Finest Hour” speech following the fall
of France. However, words alone were of little protection as Hitler’s Luftwaffe
prepared to cross the Channel.

Therefore, it is my intention to examine the main actions taken by Churchill
while preparing his nation for the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of
1940. Through the review of British policy and activity after he assumed the
head of government just prior to the fall of Dunkirk in late-May until the
beginning of the Luftwaffe’s offensive in mid-August, 1940, Churchill’s crusade
to brace his nation for war will be shown as an offensive campaign on three
fronts: political stabilization, speeches to the Commons and public, and
military build-up. These areas into which Churchill dedicated all of his energy
were the foundation for British preparation prior to the Blitz. Like a
three-legged stool, the failure of one leg could cause the collapse of the
nation’s will and ability to survive what Churchill knew was eminent.

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In order to properly put Churchill’s actions into perspective, England’s
situation in April and May 1940 must be assessed. When on May 10 Churchill, then
Dominions Secretary (a non-cabinet post) and member of the Conservative party,
was asked by King George VI to form a government upon the resignation of
Conservative leader Neville Chamberlain, the German Wehrmacht had already
introduced its blitzkrieg-style warfare to the ill-prepared British
Expeditionary and French forces in northern France. Furthermore, Churchill was
not the heir-apparent to Chamberlain’s seat. He had not even been George VI’s
first choice for the post, whom along with Chamberlain and the senior civil
servants preferred Lord Halifax. George VI was still at odds over Churchill for
supporting Edward VIII in his abdication of the British throne, and Chamberlain
and the civil servants perceived Churchill as being without a strong party base.

After Lord Halifax withdrew from the appointment due to his unwillingness to
ascend to the post as a peer rather than an elected member of Parliament,
Churchill was reluctantly given the nod.

Thus, Churchill assumed the reins of a war cabinet amidst international and
political turmoil. In order to effectively conduct the war effort at home and
abroad, Churchill had to first assemble a stable coalition within the
government. As previously mentioned, he had his skeptics in Parliament. Though
he was now Prime Minister, Chamberlain remained the leader of the Conservative
party. Upon entering the Commons on May 13 for the first address of his
premiership, he was greeted with polite applause by the chamber whereas
Chamberlain’s entrance was met with cheers. Churchill had to assemble his war
cabinet carefully so as not to alienate the parties. He was, after all,
attempting to assemble a coalition stable enough to carry the nation through a
period of unprecedented international instability. Senior Conservative leaders
Chamberlain and Halifax were appointed as Lord President of the Council and
Foreign Secretary, respectively. Churchill also sought to include leaders of the
Labour party, such as Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood, though Labour would
only constitute one-third of the new government appointments. Churchill’s new
cabinet would be indicative of his sensibility and level-mindedness in the face
of crisis. There was no condemnation of the Chamberlainites by exclusion, nor
was there a flood of Churchill’s own loyal supporters. His coalition emerged as
wisely balanced and relatively stable.

Churchill also knew that political stability was not only vital to the
immediate purpose of moving the nation forward in its war-time policies, but
also to the maintenance of national morale. Sustaining morale among the people
would be a guiding principle in all of his decisions throughout the war, and
this was the same principle which led him to seek the inclusion of Lloyd George
into the cabinet in May 1940. This was a tricky maneuver by Churchill for
several reasons. First, Lloyd George had a reputation of being soft on Hitler;
in 1936, after returning from a meeting with the Fuhrer, George praised him as,
“the greatest living German.” Furthermore, George and Chamberlain had
a long standing feud between them. Churchill was willing to risk these potential
problems, however. The addition of George to the war cabinet would, he felt,
convey a larger sense of unity within the country. Also, but only as a matter of
speculation, Churchill wanted George in a position to assume his seat at the
head of the government should the Britain face defeat. George, he believed,
would be better suited to negotiate with Hitler than others within the
government, should Britain meet such a fate.

George would not accept Churchill’s offer, citing that he could not work with
a man like Chamberlain, whom he despised. Although it was not necessary to have
George in the cabinet, Churchill would press the issue on two more occasions. In
doing so, Churchill had to also contend with Chamberlain’s objections to the
appointment. He finally persuaded Chamberlain to agree to the idea in early June
provided that Churchill would convince the London newspapers to refrain from
bashing Chamberlain and the Chamberlainites for the lack of military readiness
revealed at Dunkirk. Some historians contend that Churchill was pleased with the
attacks on Chamberlain and his “Guilty Men” as they liberated
Churchill from the resentment he received from the Commons when he first began
his premiership. However, this does not appear to be the case as Churchill
agreed to ask the newspapers to drop their attacks on Chamberlain. Despite this,
George still refused to join the war cabinet. Nonetheless, Churchill’s courting
of Lloyd George demonstrates the lengths to which he would go in order to
project a sense of unity within the government and have that unity bolster the
nation’s morale and confidence.

The most direct way in which Churchill addressed the issue of national morale
was through his speeches to the House of Commons and on BBC radio. It is out of
these numerous speeches that Churchill’s reputation as a master of the spoken
word and savior to a nation has emerged. Throughout the weeks that lingered
between the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, Churchill’s speeches
affected his people much in the same way as the “Fireside Chats” of
his counterpart, President Franklin Roosevelt, affected the American public
during the Great Depression. They were speeches meant to strengthen the
fortitude of the British people. The words spoken by Churchill were to be a fuel
added to the flame of patriotism, courage, and the condemnation of the Nazi
threat poised across the English Channel. While the specific events that brought
Churchill to speak were different each time, the themes Churchill spoke of
remained the same. These themes were the long and bitter fight that lay ahead
with the impending Luftwaffe attacks and possible invasion, and the
determination to carry on the fight, unlike France, to every corner of the
Empire. Most important, though, was the insistence that Britain would be able to
effectively engage in a fight against the Nazis, and preserve the nation as the
last bastion of freedom in Europe.

Of course, the British people did not find inspiration in Churchill’s words
alone. It was the evacuation of Dunkirk, or as was commonly dubbed the
“miracle” of Dunkirk, that gave Churchill’s words plausibility. The
psychological effect of Dunkirk on British morale cannot be ignored. While the
evacuation was, by any military man’s standards, an overwhelming defeat, it
shored-up British morale on three levels. First, and most vital in light of the
anticipated Nazi offensive, the Royal Air Force proved its effectiveness against
the German Luftwaffe. Though the RAF was greatly outnumbered by the German air
force, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes destroyed as many as three Messerschmitts
for every one RAF fighter downed. The Royal navy proved its superiority over the
German navy throughout the evacuation by holding off the Nazis and aiding in the
rescue of over 320,000 British and French troops. Furthermore, Britain knew it
would live to fight another day, and that when the fight did arrive, it could
stand-up to the Germans.

Two of Churchill’s most famous speeches, made after the evacuation of Dunkirk
on 4 June, and after the fall of France on 18 June, encompassed these themes. In
reaction to Dunkirk, while addressing the House of Commons, Churchill
proclaimed:
We shall go to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas
and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in
the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on
the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields
and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Two weeks later, Churchill painted a broader and more urgent picture of the
responsibility that the nation was forced to accept. He spoke of the survival of
“Christian civilization” not only in Europe, but throughout the world.

He suggested the two roads that lay ahead–one in which Hitler has won and
Europe falls into the, “abyss of a new Dark Age,” and one in which
Hitler has lost and the freed civilizations walk, “forward into broad,
sunlit uplands.” This, Churchill asserted, would be looked back upon as the
Empire’s, “finest hour.”
Churchill also spoke frequently of London as a “City of Refuge” for
all of Europe. This was by no means an understatement. In the weeks leading up
to the Battle of Britain, a steadily increasing number of Polish, French,
Belgian, and Norwegian soldiers sought refuge in London, the last major European
city not under the control of the Axis Powers. The city had also become the new
home for Europe’s exiled leaders such as the queen of Holland, the king of
Norway, and the President of Poland. The people of England knew that what was at
stake was not simply their own sovereignty, but as Churchill said, the freedom
of the entire continent.

As previously stated, it would take more than just words and imagery to
counter the ferocity of the Nazi war-machine. After the fall of France,
Churchill and the government knew that in order to survive the impending German
offensive on Great Britain, production of aircraft and armaments would have to
be raised to the highest levels possible, troops would have to be trained and
mobilized, defense strategies would have to be devised, and with unoccupied
France tied to Germany by an armistice, what was left of the French naval fleet
would have to either be brought under the control of Britain, neutralized, or
destroyed.

Luckily, Churchill had made a wise decision in his appointment of W. M
Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production. Beaverbrook was a capable man
for the position, and though German aircraft production had outnumbered British
production by almost 10,000 in the previous three years, Beaverbrook had
increased the British rate of production to a level doubling that of Germany’s
by the time the Luftwaffe took to the air over England. The state of British
troops represented another major problem, as well. The Battle of France had
decimated the officer corps, and Churchill worried about the army’s
organization. To resolve this problem, Churchill ordered the rapid promotion for
officers of ability and instructed the army to create and organize British
storm-troopers based on the German model. Furthermore, he facilitated the
creation of smaller, more mobile units that included tank hunters and special
force units.

Preparation for an expected German land-invasion of the island required much
more thought and detail. Churchill anticipated the Germans to attempt a landing
from the Channel that fall, and involved himself in every detail of the defense
strategy. The most vital area of Britain’s defense plan was the southern
coastline. Churchill feared that if Hitler could get a foothold on the
coastline, the war could be lost in a matter of weeks. His plan called for a
concentration of men and barriers along the coast with anti-tank obstacles. If
the Germans were able to get ashore and break the British line, the small,
mobile forces previously described would advance from their inland positions to
fill any gaps.

Had this strategy failed, the fate of Britain would have been left to the
Home Guard, a civilian force that had been organized and trained to fight street
to street, house to house. In reference to a possible German advance into
English cities, and the employment of the Home Guard in combat against the
Wehrmacht, Churchill darkly advocated the motto, “You can always take one
with you.” Naturally, he was apprehensive about this being the last line of
defense for the nation, and pushed for the relocation of more regular army
troops inland and among the cities. Wars, Churchill wrote, “are not won by
heroic militias.”
One of Churchill’s most significant contributions to British morale and
Britain’s military situation was also one of the hardest decisions he had to
make during the war. Following the establishment of the Vichy regime in southern
France under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Ptain, Britain gave the French
government an ultimatum in reference to what remained of their naval forces.

Fearing that German control of France’s modern fleet of battleships would be
disastrous to the British war- effort, Churchill ordered that either the French
agree to send their fleet to British ports, American waters, scuttle the vessels
themselves, or Britain would destroy them herself. After Ptain and the Vichy
government ignored the ultimatum, British naval forces opened fire on the fleet
harbored in the Mers-el-Kbir naval base on 3 July. Two of the battleships
managed to escape, but several more were destroyed and 1,250 French sailors were
killed. While this event effectively ended official diplomatic relations between
Britain and her former ally, the British people and the House of Commons praised
Churchill for his swift and decisive action in what was Britain’s first
significant offensive action of the war. Churchill characterized the ordeal as,
“heartbreaking.”
In the tense period between the Nazi invasion of France and the Battle of
Britain, Churchill had suddenly assumed the reins of a nation facing its most
serious crisis in centuries. He found himself leading an empire that had not
been conquered since 1066, yet was facing invasion by an army that had swept
through Western Europe in mere months. Britain’s strongest European ally would
be crushed in weeks, leaving her the next recipient of Hitler’s aggression. Yet
Churchill moved quickly and surely to prepare his nation for its inevitable war
of survival. Churchill employed significant measures in the area of political
compromise, national morale, and military readiness, without which could have
marked the defeat of Great Britain. His dedication to the defense of the nation
would be the most powerful weapon Britain possessed. Churchill’s will to win at
all costs would inspire his people, rally his troops, and earn the cooperation
of his peers. The weeks leading up to the Battle of Britain will remain in
history as his finest hour.

Works Cited
Collier, Basil. The Battle of Britain. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1962.

Cosgrave, Patrick. Churchill at War. London: Collins, 1974.

Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World War. London: Routledge, 1999.

Jullian, Marcel. The Battle of Britain. New York: The Orion Press, 1965.

Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.,
1976.

Lukacs, John. The Duel. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991.


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