In May 1940 Britain was confronted with two of the most important questions in its history. At stake was the very survival of Britain itself.
Who should lead Britain in the war against Nazi Germany? There were two candidates. Lord Halifax, the favourite for the position, had a reputation for solid reliability. The other, Winston Churchill, was seen as a political loose cannon.
Should Britain make a negotiated peace with Hitler? With its army in France pushed back by German forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, it was facing what seemed like certain, shocking defeat.
Today we know what the answers were to those questions. Winston Churchill, to the surprise - and dismay - of many people, became prime minister. Churchill would convince the politicians around him that Britain, despite ‘the gravity of the hour’, must fight on.
The film Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, explores these questions and features some of the people who in different ways had to answer them. They would shape not just the future of Britain, but of the world. They include the family, who supported Winston Churchill in what would become his ‘finest hour’.
Winston Churchill was by no means the obvious choice for prime minister. Already a politician for 40 years, he was considered by many people in Britain to be a warmonger, an adventurer and an opportunist with poor judgement.
Yet in his opposition during the 1930’s to the popular policy of appeasement, Churchill was proved right. Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 showed that negotiating with the German dictator to prevent war had been fruitless. Public opinion began to swing behind Churchill.
Churchill was appointed prime minister on 10 May 1940, aged 65. This only came about because the obvious candidate, Lord Halifax, declined. The position of prime minister was one that Churchill had always craved, yet had seemed so unlikely to reach. As he would later write, ‘I felt as I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. …I was sure I should not fail.’
In a series of crucial, often heated, discussions and debates that took place in late May 1940, Churchill determined that Britain would fight on.
Churchill would lead Britain to eventual victory over Nazi Germany five years later but following a general election in July 1945 he was, to his immense disappointment, replaced as prime minister by Clement Attlee.
Neville Chamberlain was prime minister from 1937 to 9 May 1940, when he was forced to resign over a disastrous military campaign in Norway. As prime minister, he had pursued a policy of Appeasement, believing that Hitler could be bargained with, despite the fact that the German dictator had consistently broken his word. Chamberlain was however, not a weak man, despite the way in which he has often been portrayed. In fact, he was a domineering, often stubborn Prime Minister, who ruled his Cabinet and the Conservative Party with an iron hand.
On resigning, Chamberlain recommended Lord Halifax to the King as his successor. When Churchill became prime minister, he included Chamberlain in his War Cabinet. In late May 1940, as German forces seemed about to inflict a disastrous defeat on Britain and France, Chamberlain, like Lord Halifax, believed that a negotiated peace with Hitler might still be reached and disaster prevented. Yet by 28 May he had come round to Churchill’s view that Britain must fight on.
In October 1940, Neville Chamberlain resigned from the War Cabinet due to ill-health. He died the following month.
King George VI
In May 1940, King George VI very much wanted Lord Halifax to be Britain’s wartime prime minister. His personal friendship with Halifax even extended to giving him the keys to the gardens of Buckingham Palace, a unique privilege. Yet when Halifax - ‘the obvious man’ - declined, the King had no choice but to send for Churchill.
A quiet and reserved person, the King had grave doubts about Churchill and believed that he lacked judgement. Churchill had supported George’s older brother, King Edward VIII, when he had abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. This had particularly annoyed the Royal Family.
The King and Churchill usually met over lunch on Tuesdays to discuss the conduct of the war and other affairs. However, deeply involved with directing the war, Churchill sometimes put off their meetings and failed to consult the King as often as he might have. Yet they became firm friends.
Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, seemed by far the most likely candidate to replace Neville Chamberlain as prime minster. Nicknamed ‘The Holy Fox’ for his religious faith and political cunning, he was greatly preferred to Churchill, the only other candidate, by the Conservative Party and by King George VI. Yet Halifax had no appetite to lead Britain in war. Churchill became prime minister.
Churchill kept Lord Halifax as Foreign Secretary. Yet in late May 1940, in a series of meetings, they clashed over Halifax’s proposal to negotiate with Hitler. In his diary of 27 May, Halifax wrote, ‘I thought Winston talked the most frightful rot…’. He also remarked upon Churchill’s courage.
In December 1940, Churchill sent to Halifax to the United States where he proved a very successful ambassador.
Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, became an unlikely ally for Churchill. Churchill had called Attlee ‘a modest little man with plenty to be modest about’ and ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’.
Churchill appointed Attlee to the War Cabinet of the new National Government – a coalition. Attlee sided with the prime minister in the intense, fraught, discussions held behind closed doors in late May 1940. He believed that negotiations with Hitler would be a ‘grave danger’ to the morale of the British people.
Attlee became deputy prime minister, largely responsible for the day-to-day domestic business of the government. Churchill came to value him highly, although as the war went on, Attlee was sometimes exasperated by Churchill’s seeming lack of interest in the Home Front.
In July 1945, Attlee replaced Churchill as prime minister following the most dramatic election result in Britain’s history.
Anthony Eden, whom Churchill appointed Secretary of State for War in May 1940, became one of the new prime minister’s closest political allies and confidants.
Glamorous and always elegantly dressed, Eden, like Attlee and Churchill, had fought in the Army in the First World War. In 1938, as Foreign Secretary, he had resigned over Neville Chamberlain’s Appeasement policy. In May 1940, Anthony Eden backed Churchill in his determination that Britain should fight on, ‘whatever the cost’. At the end of that year, Eden became Foreign Secretary again and was Churchill’s chosen successor. While he often disagreed with Churchill over foreign policy, Eden remained his faithful supporter.
Clementine Hozier married Winston Churchill, then the rising star of British politics, in 1908. They first met at a dinner party.
Ten years younger than her husband, ‘Clemmie’ was a woman of powerful intellect. Her loyalty to her husband was unwavering, through the highs - and the lows - of his career. While she was always loyal to him in public, she remained a Liberal all her life, and in private sometimes strongly disagreed with him. She also disapproved of some of the rather raffish company Churchill kept. Her husband could be exasperating as well. In 1922 he even bought their home at Chartwell, Kent, without telling her.
Throughout 1940, Clementine’s advice and support helped see Churchill through perhaps the greatest challenges of his life. In one of her best known interventions, she warned him in a letter about his ‘rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner’ towards his colleagues. Clementine Churchill died in 1977, twelve years after her husband.
Winston Churchill had five children, Diana, Sarah, Randolph, Marigold - who died of blood poisoning aged two in 1921 - and Mary. He showered them with affection, to the point of spoiling them. This was in stark contrast to his own father and mother, who were distant and showed little affection for the young Winston. Mary Churchil l(later Lady Soames) developed a particularly strong bond with her father. During the war, she served with the Red Cross, the Women’s Voluntary Service and Auxiliary Territorial Service, in which she served in an anti-aircraft battery. Mary was regularly at her father’s side and accompanied him to important meetings overseas.
Lady Soames became an accomplished writer. She died in 2014.