Churchill’s First Steps into World War II
On Aug. 31, 1939, Winston Churchill was at Chartwell, his home in Kent, working to complete his manuscript for A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He wrote to his publisher that he had 530,000 words written, “and there is only the cutting and proof reading, together with a few special points, now to be done.” In a separate letter, Churchill told G.M. Young, “It is a relief in times like these to be able to escape into other centuries.”
That same day, Hitler had issued his directive for the attack on Poland. “I have determined,” the German Fuhrer wrote, “on a solution by force . . . The date of attack—September 1, 1939. Time of attack— 04.45.”
Churchill worked on his book until the early morning hours of Sept. 1. At about 8:30 am, Poland’s Ambassador to Great Britain called Churchill to inform him that German armed forces had invaded Poland. Later that day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain invited Churchill to become a member of the War Cabinet. Churchill recalled, “I agreed to his proposal without comment, and on this basis we had a long talk on men and measures.” Churchill was named First Lord of the Admiralty, the same post he held at the beginning of the First World War.
Britain, France were bound to defend Poland
The next day, Churchill wrote to the Prime Minister: “I trust you will be able to announce our Joint Declaration of War at the latest when Parliament meets this afternoon.” In the wake of the Czech crisis, both Britain and France had pledged to defend Poland if she were attacked by Germany. Churchill in The Gathering Storm reflected on the Western powers’ decision to guarantee Poland’s frontiers:
Here was decision at last, taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people. Here was the righteous cause deliberately and with a refinement of inverted artistry committed to mortal battle after its assets and advantages had been so improvidently squandered.
Churchill had urged Britain’s governments since the early-to-mid 1930s to react vigorously to growing German power and to resist Nazi aggression, but his repeated warnings had all been ignored. He knew that the guarantee to Poland at that late date was more symbolic than real. But as he explained,
[I]f you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves.
Britain at war
Britain sent its ultimatum to Germany on Sept. 3. When there was no response from the German government, Prime Minister Chamberlain announced to the nation that Britain was at war. Chamberlain spoke briefly to the House of Commons, describing the immediate events that led to war. Churchill spoke next. “We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us,” he said, “or the severity of the ordeal, to which we shall not be found unequal.” He told the House, “We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man.” Britain waged war, he explained, not for domination or plunder, but “to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and . . . to establish and revive the stature of man.”
Churchill went to Admiralty House, where he had directed affairs in the early years of World War I. The Board of Admiralty had signaled to the fleet: “Winston is back.” Churchill’s return to power after spending nearly a decade in the political wilderness, boosted the morale of the British people. Paul Maze, who served with Churchill on the Western front in the First World War, wrote, “Now we are at war and we can meet the future with confidence.” Josiah Wedgwood told Churchill, “Thank whatever God there be. Now we shall win.”
The Countess of Birkenhead expressed gratitude that Churchill’s “great gifts & wonderful brain are being used in the War Cabinet, as there is no one else in the country to compare with you at a time like this.” One of Churchill’s political opponents wrote to him: “You warned us repeatedly about the German danger & you were right . . . you are in an office which we are all glad that you hold in this time of Britain’s danger.”
As Churchill sat in his old chair in Admiralty House, he gazed upon the wooden map-case that still contained the map of the North Sea and the dispositions of the German High Seas Fleet from the First World War. In The Gathering Storm he recalled, “Since 1911 much more than a quarter of a century had passed, and still mortal peril threatened us at the hands of the same nation.” He memorably wrote, “Once again defense of the rights of a weak state, outraged and invaded by unprovoked aggression, forced us to draw the sword. Once again we must fight for life and honor against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined, and ruthless German race. Once again. So be it.”
Churchill embraced war
Churchill met with the Sea Lords and instructed, “Gentleman, to your tasks and duties.” He routinely worked from 6-7 a.m. until the early morning hours of the next day, usually taking a brief afternoon nap, so that, in his words, he “was able to press a day and a half’s work into one.” War, as historians and biographers have noted, energized Churchill. He had studied, written about, and participated in world-shaping events. He was, biographer William Manchester wrote, “a leader of intuitive genius . . . an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people.”
He recalled in The Gathering Storm, “[t]he war at sea . . . began from the first hour with full intensity, and the Admiralty therefore became the active center of events.” He addressed the German U-boat menace, the need for convoys to protect shipping, the establishment of a blockade, the launching of economic warfare against Germany, meeting the threat from the air, and protecting British interests in the Mediterranean Sea.
That month Churchill received the first of hundreds of wartime letters and communications from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who deliberately bypassed Britain’s Prime Minister, the British Foreign Office, and the American Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy (a notorious appeaser of Hitler), to communicate directly with Churchill — a correspondence that would grow and be crucial to the Allied war effort when the United States entered the war.
There would be early setbacks for Britain — especially at sea. Ironically, it was a naval disaster at Norway in the spring of 1940 that led to Chamberlain’s resignation and his replacement by Churchill as Prime Minister. And it was during the spring and summer of 1940 that Winston Churchill overcame those in the War Cabinet who sought to negotiate with Hitler and thereby saved Western Civilization.