On the same day, Winston Churchill became prime minister on 10 May 1940, German forces poured into Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. By 21 May, encircled British and French troops had fallen back to the beaches near the port of Dunkirk. All seemed lost as the bulk of the British Army lay at the mercy of the German Army. However, Hitler ordered his troops not to attack and a fleet of boats and ships was able to ferry 338,000 soldiers back to Britain and safety. Victory of a sort was snatched from the jaws of defeat. It was an event that would help cement Winston Churchill’s reputation as an extremely effective war leader. Indeed, the first few months of his premiership allowed the prime minister to display many of the qualities that singled him out as one of the greatest war leaders of all time.
Luck was very much on Churchill’s side when it came to Dunkirk. Indeed, catching a lucky break played a significant part throughout Churchill’s years as leader. He had the good luck to have at his disposal the brave pilots of the RAF, and he would need them when the Battle of Britain began. Luck was very much on his side when Hitler gave up on the idea of invading England and turned his attention to the Soviet Union instead. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may have been terrible news for the Americans, but it was a stroke of luck for a prime minister who had been trying to turn the United States away from isolationism ever since he took up office. And, of course, Churchill also had the very good fortune of leading an island nation. Islands are devilishly hard places to invade and much easier to defend.
But luck can only get you so far in war and it was Dunkirk that allowed Churchill to bring another of his great qualities into play, one that singled him out as such an effective war leader – the power of his oratory. As the little ships whisked British and French troops away from danger, Churchill arrived in the Commons to deliver a speech that would become one of the most famous pieces of oratory of all time.
'We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and 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.'
The speech was just the sort of inspiring, sabre-rattling stuff that put a spring in the nation’s step – especially a nation that liked to see itself as being at its best when it was up against it. The speech also helped turn Dunkirk from a disaster into a triumph in the public’s imagination. Inspiring the nation through the extraordinary power of his words would be something Churchill could rely on throughout his war leadership.
French resistance to the Nazis would last a further twenty-one more days after Churchill made his rousing speech in the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. Great Britain would soon find itself alone in Europe with no hope its vast overseas empire would ride to the rescue anytime soon.
With the bulk of the British Army’s armaments lying abandoned on the beaches of Normandy, only the RAF and the Home Fleet stood in the way of a full-scale invasion. The country truly had its back to the wall. To stand any hope of success, Britain would need a combination of strong leadership and incredible bravery to see it through the challenge ahead. Luckily, the country would prove to have both in spades.
'The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.' Churchill told the Commons on the 18th of June. 'Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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 still say, “This was their finest hour”.'
Above the skies of southern England during that long hot summer of 1940, fighter aircraft of the Royal Air Force fought off wave after wave of Luftwaffe attacks. At stake were air supremacy and the fate of the nation. Against tremendous odds, Britain emerged victoriously and Operation Sealion – the plan to invade Britain – was put on permanent hiatus. On summing up the Battle of Britain, Churchill yet again rose to the occasion.
'The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'
Churchill had been in office just five months when he delivered that speech, and in that short period, he had already displayed many of the characteristics that would single him out as a great war leader – courage, defiance, determination, luck and an ability to inspire others. To that tally would be added a workaholic’s energy, an optimist’s unshakable belief in victory, a diplomat’s ability to butter up his allies, a populist’s persuasive skills and an old warhorse’s empathy for what civilians and soldiers were going through. Though it has to be noted that that empathy was in pretty short supply when it came to the unfortunate subjects of Bengal in 1943.
Through bad times and good, Churchill steered his nation towards victory armed with a set of traits that made him uniquely suited to the job. Of course, he also had his flaws. He could also be difficult, infuriating, impulsive and even reckless, but the worst aspects of his character were, for the most part, reined in by his War Cabinet, by his military and civilian advisors and by his ferociously loyal wife Clementine. She was always on hand to knock her egotistical husband down a peg or two when the need arose – something that could not be said for Churchill’s opposite number in Berlin. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and this was most certainly the case when it came to Clementine Churchill.
By the end of the war, Britain had been reduced to a junior partner to the United States. The country would never again be a big hitter on the world stage in the same way it had been in its imperial heyday. His country may have been diminished, but Churchill would emerge from the war a colossus. Through a combination of courage, luck, tenacity, determination, defiance, empathy, energy and an ability to inspire others, he had gained a global reputation as one of the greatest war leaders of all time. He had, to borrow an American phrase, 'the right stuff', and he had all the characteristics to be a great war leader at the exact moment his nation needed him the most. Whatever his faults – and there were many – there is simply no denying that without Winston Churchill the world would now be a very different place.