The Road To Number 10
This lack of co-ordination by Britain’s forces, and the swiftness of Hitler’s attack, meant the British force that ‘captured’ Narvik on the 13th of April could only hold it long enough to destroy the port installations. The force then fought a retreat leaving Narvic to the Germans.
It was a similar picture at Trondheim.
The whole Norway affair was not another Gallipoli campaign, although many wished and tried to suggest that it was, once again, Churchill’s fault. Churchill didn’t flinch and took full responsibility. He was on his own until, eventually, Chamberlain supported his First Lord, shifting, somewhat reluctantly, most of the blame onto his own shoulders. It was a steep learning curve that everyone involved had to climb.
The outcome was the fall of the government. Churchill writes:
“ The many disappointments and disasters of the brief campaign in Norway caused profound perturbation at home, and the currents of passion mounted even in the breasts of some of those who had been most slothful and purblind in the years before the war. The opposition asked for a debate on the war situation, and this was arranged for May 7.”
Roy Jenkins, in his 2001 biography of Churchill, writes:
“ The ‘inquest on Norway’ House of Commons debate of Wednesday, 7 May and Thursday, 8 May 1940 was by a clear head both the most dramatic and the most far-reaching in its consequences of any parliamentary debate of the twentieth century. It was also one in which nearly every MP who occupied or sought first rank took part — almost the only exception was Aneuren Bevan [a Welsh Labour Party politician]…
“ On the first day…of the great debate Chamberlain opened with a tired defensive speech [expressing his hope that he still had friends in the House]which impressed nobody. Almost his only hard point was an announcement that Churchill was to be empowered ‘ on behalf of the Military Co-ordinating Committee to give guidance and direction to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, who will prepare plans to carry out the objectives which are given to them by him.’ Even this significant devolution of power over the conduct of the war was not well received.”
Churchill had effectively become the Minister for Defence.
Pretty much all the speeches (especially Clement Attlee’s who would later serve as Churchill’s Deputy Prime Minister) that followed criticised Chamberlain and his ministers, but not Churchill. And of course Churchill, as a serving member of the cabinet, was duty bound not to criticise his boss, especially if he wanted the top job.
At 10.11 pm, at the end of the second day of the debate Churchill made the closing speech which, according to the American born Conservative MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, was a tour de force. Politician Harold Nicolson described it thus:
Winston “…has an almost impossible task. On the one hand he has to defend the Services, on the other, he has to be loyal to the Prime Minister. One felt that it would be impossible for him to do this after the debate without losing some of his own prestige, but he manages with extraordinary force of personality to do both these things with absolute loyalty and apparent sincerity, while demonstrating by his brilliance that he really has nothing to do with this confused and timid gang.”
After the speeches came the vote, with only 486 members of the House, out of a total of 615, voting, resulting in the Conservative majority of 213 falling to 81. In normal times this would have been acceptable, but in a time of war with Britain seemingly heading for defeat, with a parliament split, and a nation in need of unity and strong leadership, things were looking grave.
Chamberlain left the House looking grey and ill (he was already suffering from cancer), and in a private meeting with Churchill after the debate told him he didn’t think he could go on.
“ I don’t remember exactly how things happened during the morning of May 9, but the following occurred. Sir Kingsley Wood [a Conservative MP] was very close to the Prime Minister as a Colleague and friend…[and] from him I learned that Mr Chamberlain was resolved upon the formation of a National Government, and if he could not be the head he would give way to anyone commanding his confidence who could.”
On the 10th, thirty hours after the debate, telegrams started arriving at the Admiralty saying that Hitler had launched his offensive against Belgium, Holland and France. World War Two had begun in earnest.
It was very important to get a new prime minister installed into No 10 by the end of the day. Initially Lord Halifax was the favourite until Hitler’s move changed everything, and Halifax’s desire to do a deal with the dictator put an end to his hopes.
Becoming Prime Minister was the last thing on Churchill’s mind as he chased around the Admiralty dictating orders for all available RN ships to join the Royal Dutch Navy and give the invading German forces a hard time as they crossed the causeway that enclosed part of the Zuyder Zee. It was of course little more than a gesture as Holland fell to those Nazi forces later in the day.
Around the same time as Holland fell Churchill learned that Chamberlain had gone to see the King to offer his resignation.
Soon after Churchill went to the palace to see the King, as Churchill writes:
“ His Majesty received me most graciously and bade me sit down. He looked at me searchingly and quizzically for some moments, and then said, ‘ I suppose you don’t know why I have sent for you?’ Adopting his mood, I replied, ‘ Sir, I simply couldn’t imagine why.’ He laughed and said, ‘ I want to ask you to form a Government.’ I said I would certainly do so.”
Winston Churchill was Prime Minister.
Winston Churchill — The Gathering Storm (Houghton Mifflin & Co, Boston, 1948); Andrew Roberts — Churchill :Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane/Penguin Books, London,2018); Roy Jenkins — Churchill (Pan Books, London, 2001); Andrew Roberts — The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (Allen Lane/Penguin Books, London, 2009); Boris Johnson — The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2014); Jon Bew — Citizen Clem: A Biography of Atlee (Riverrun, London, 2016); David Lough — No More Champagne — Churchill and His Money (Head of Zeus, London, 2015)…