London, England May 13, 1940

As Adolf Hitler’s armies raced across Europe, seemingly un­stop­pable, gobbling up coun­try after coun­try for Nazi Germany, and (God forbid) perhaps Britain her­self, Winston Churchill succeeded a war-weary Neville Cham­ber­lain as British prime minis­ter on May 10, 1940. Cham­ber­lain had appointed Chur­chill to be First Lord of the Admiralty, a polit­i­cal posi­tion with respon­si­bility for directing and con­trolling the Royal Navy and Marines, on the same day Britain had declared war on Germany, Septem­ber 3, 1939. This was the second time Churchill had headed the Admi­ralty Depart­ment—the first had been during the First World War—and the appoint­ment was well-received by Britons, even bumping up the popu­larity of Cham­ber­lain for several months until the prime minis­ter lost favor nationally and even among some mem­bers of his own Con­ser­va­tive Party at the end of the eight-month so-called “Phony War,” when in April 1941 Germany over­ran tiny Den­mark and assaulted Norway. The Anglo-French debacle in stiffening Norwegian resis­tance to the Nazi inva­sion prompted Cham­ber­lain to con­sent to seeing the driven Chur­chill rewarded with his party’s most impor­tant prize, the prime minis­ter­ship. Chur­chill, con­vinced “that I had been walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been prep­a­ra­tion for this hour and for this trial,” assembled a new coa­li­tion govern­ment of Con­ser­va­tives, Laborites, and Liberals, plus a smattering of ministers with no party affiliation.

Churchill and former Prime Minister Chamberlain entered a packed House of Com­mons on this date, May 13, 1941, three days after news had reached a still-shocked London of Germany’s inva­sion of the Low Coun­tries and France. After a luke­warm recep­tion from fellow Members of Parlia­ment—Chur­chill was unpop­u­lar in many circles, espe­cially among Cham­ber­lain loyalists still smarting over the change in top leader­ship—Britain’s new prime minis­ter uttered one of the greatest calls-to-arms ever: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” he told his listeners. The policy of his new govern­ment was “to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a mon­strous tyran­ny, never sur­passed in the dark, lament­able cata­log of human crime.” His govern­ment’s aim was “victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terrors. Victory, how­ever long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Churchill’s inaugural address as prime minister—his power­ful call-to-arms—was followed the next month by two more elo­quent ora­to­rical instances preceding the June 22, 1940, French surrender: the June 4 “We shall fight on the beaches” speech and the June 18 “This was their finest hour” speech one day after the pro­posed Franco-German armi­stice was announced. In his June 4 speech, Chur­chill con­tem­plated the im­pending mili­tary defeat of his con­ti­nen­tal ally France and the real pos­si­bil­ity of having to defend the besieged British Isles on English inva­sion beaches, in English fields and hills, and in streets—all this with­out under­mining his May 13 dec­la­ra­tion of “victory, how­ever long and hard the road may be.” In the last of the three speeches Chur­chill recog­nized the looming battle facing all Britain. “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. . . . If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed. . . . But if we fail, then the world . . . will sink into the abyss of a new dark age. . . . Let us there­fore brace our­selves to our duties, and so bear our­selves, that if the British Empire and its Common­wealth last for a thou­sand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour’.” Churchill’s three master­ful (and match­less) speeches, like others that followed during the dark years of 1940–1941, inspired and unified his country­men to soldier on alone, still unbowed, until help came in the form of America’s dramatic entrance into the European conflict on December 11, 1941.

Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill: Divergent War Aims

British Wartime Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, 1939–1940British Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 1940–1945

Left: Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), British prime minister from May 28, 1937, to May 10, 1940. In his last month in office, the May 1940 Gallup poll showed Cham­ber­lain’s unfavor­ability rating at 67 per­cent, which stood in stark contrast to his huge pop­u­lar­ity as an inter­national “peace­maker” in the wake of the Septem­ber 1938 Munich Con­fer­ence. The four-power sum­mit of Euro­pean polit­i­cal leaders in Bavaria’s capital appeased Hitler by rewarding Nazi Germany with Czecho­slo­va­kia’s ethnic-German Sudeten­land. Chur­chill turned his back on Cham­ber­lain’s hither­to futile war aim; namely, trying to induce in Hitler a change of heart and mind by teaching Nazi Germany that aggres­sion in Czecho­slo­vakia and Poland (1939) and Den­mark and Norway (1940) could not and must not pay div­i­dends of any kind. Britain’s war aim under Chur­chill was not the collapse of the German econ­omy or a revolt of the German masses and a com­pro­mise peace as Cham­ber­lain had hoped for; rather, it was a complete and clear-cut mili­tary victory over the pred­a­tory nation—a return to total war of the kind that even­tu­ally brought down Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany during the First World War. Cham­ber­lain, after stepping down as prime minister in May 1940, remained in Chur­chill’s coa­li­tion cabi­net as Lord Presi­dent of the Coun­cil, presiding over meetings of the Privy Council, until October 3, 1940, succumbing to bowel cancer the next month at age 71.

Right: Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Winston Churchill (1874–1965) flashing his famous “V” for victory sign following his return from Washing­ton, D.C., to No. 10 Downing St., London, June 5, 1943. Named the Greatest Briton of all time in a 1999 BBC poll, Chur­chill is widely regarded as being among the most influ­en­tial people in British history, con­sis­tently ranking well in opinion polls of 20th-cen­tury British prime minis­ters. Inter­estingly, Clement Attlee, Chur­chill’s Labor Party suc­ces­sor in 1945, ranked first in three out of four recent polls (2004–2016). In the 2004 online poll of 258 aca­demics who spe­cialized in 20th-century British history and/or politics, Attlee ranked number 1, Churchill 2, and Chamberlain 17 out of 20.

Except from Winston Churchill’s First Speech to the House of Commons: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”