Now began the hardest, harshest period of Churchill’s life. He was lucky to have a safe seat where he was active, was much loved, and had many faithful friends. Otherwise he might have been extinguished as a politician and become instead a professional writer, for which he had reliable talents. He was lucky to have an adoring (but wise and sometimes critical) wife and a growing family of children who were his warmest supporters. Lucky to have Chartwell, a burgeoning personal paradise where he could lick his many, and often serious, wounds. Lucky to have his art, doing more paintings in this decade (250 out of the 500 that have survived) than in any other. Lucky, above all, that events suddenly gave him a clear vision of what was happening in the world, and what would happen unless he prevented it by his amazing gifts and energies.
The picture cleared early in 1933, when Adolf Hitler captured power in Germany and immediately set about his own plan to destroy Versailles and make Germany the strongest power in Europe, and eventually the world. Churchill had read Mein Kampf and believed it represented Hitler’s plain intentions. So did Hitler. “My programme from the first was to abolish the Treaty of Versailles . . . I have written it thousands of times. No human being has ever declared or recorded what he wanted more often than me.” There was no British response to Hitler’s arrival in power. Churchill had already pointed out that the Germans had been breaking the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, which forbade the creation of a large army, for some time, by buying heavy weapons from the Soviet Union. Hitler merely accelerated the process. Few people had read Mein Kampf;fewer still believed it. In government circles Hitler was seen as a deluded adventurer who would soon be discarded. The mood of the country was highlighted by a provocative debate at the Oxford Union, in which the undergraduates voted 275-153 for the motion “That this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country.” Churchill called “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal . . . a very disquieting and disgusting symptom.” His son, Randolph, now grown up, noisy and attention seeking, often in ways which caused his father acute embarrassment, made a much-publicized attempt to tear the record of the debate out of the Union’s book of minutes. Later, Churchill himself calmed down and said, “When it comes to the crunch [a word he invented in this sense] those young men will fight just as their fathers did”—as indeed happened in 1939-45. The future Lord Longford, then a young man, provided a vignette of Churchill in autumn 1935, entertaining young people to lunch at Chartwell. He had spent the morning writing and laying bricks (he told Baldwin he could do two hundred bricks and two thousand words in a day) and was grumpy at first. “But as the wine flowed his eloquence expanded and for three hours the small company were treated to a harangue I have never heard equalled.” The theme was German rearmament, and “somewhere around four o’clock, whiskey and sodas were called for and . . . I was emboldened to ask him, ‘If the Germans are already as strong as you say, what could we do if they landed here?’ ‘That should not prove an insoluble conundrum. We are here five able-bodied men. The armoury at our disposal is not perhaps very modern, but none of us would be without a weapon. We should sally forth. I should venture to assume the responsibilities of command. If the worst came to the worst, we should sell our lives dearly. Whatever the outcome, I feel confident we should render a good account of ourselves.’ ”
Meanwhile, the odds were stacked against his policy: a strong, rearmed Britain, ready and able to oppose a strong, rearmed—and vengeful—Germany. He was deeply depressed about India. He did not see himself as a reactionary longing for a past that was gone, but as the prophet of a dangerous future. The world, he said, was “entering a period when the struggle for self-preservation is going to present itself with great intenseness to thickly populated industrial countries.” Britain would soon be “fighting for its life,” and the wealth derived from India, the prestige, self-respect, and confidence provided by the Raj, were essential for survival. But India was already going; like China it faced a future of internal chaos, warlord-ism, and disintegration: “Greedy appetites have already been excited. Many itching fingers are stretching and scratching at the vast pillage of a derelict empire.”
But Churchill, pulling out all the stops of his ceaseless rhetoric, failed to rouse the nation, Parliament, or his own party to fight for India. The debate was over giving India an autonomous central government, as well as provincial governments, versus self-government for the provinces only (which Churchill supported). He called the 1935 India Bill, which in effect gave it Home Rule, “a monstrous monument of shame built by pygmies,” and he fought it clause by clause. But he never persuaded more than 89 to vote against it, and it passed by the enormous majority of 264. Nor did he have any success, as yet, in alerting public opinion to the dangers of Germany. Keynes had convinced most opinion formers that Versailles was an unjust, destructive, and vicious treaty, “a Carthaginian peace.” So Hitler was quite right to seek to undo it. Clifford Allen called it “that wicked treaty” and applauded Hitler: “I am convinced he genuinely desires peace.” Archbishop Temple of York said Hitler had made “a great contribution to the secure establishment of peace.” Lord Lothian even used the treaty to justify Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, which was “largely the reflex of the external persecution to which Germans have been subjected since the war.”
It was the only period in British history when pacifism became not merely fashionable but the creed of the majority. In June 1933, at the East Fulham by-election, the Labour candidate received a message from the party leader, George Lansbury: “I would close every recruiting station, disband the army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world, ‘Do your worst.’ ” This was one of six by-elections fought in 1933-34 which registered huge swings in favor of the pacifist candidates. The dominant pacifist wing of the clergy founded a Peace Pledge Union to collect “signatures for peace.” A “peace ballot” asked the nation to sign up for a motion repudiating national rearmament and instead to leave everything to the League of Nations. It was adopted by 87 percent of the 10 million votes cast.
At the government level there was no pacifism as such, but folly. One thing Churchill believed in was the French army. He went to its maneuvers and tried to encourage its generals to stand firm against Hitler. But they pointed out that British official policy held the French army was too big. Sir John Simon, the foreign secretary, told the House that nothing was more likely to provoke a future war than “a well-armed France” facing a disarmed Germany. The same afternoon Hitler’s Enabling Bill passed, giving him absolute power to do anything he pleased for an indefinite future. Anthony Eden, for the government, said it was British policy to get the French army cut from 694,000 to 400,000. Churchill protested strongly. Eden rebuked him for opposing measures “to secure for Europe that period of appeasement which is needed.” The Daily Telegraph noted: “The House was enraged and in an ugly mood—towards Mr Churchill.” This was the first sign that he had sacrificed the position of popularity he had so painfully acquired in the twenties by good behavior and was now regarded as a nuisance and a troublemaker. The mood was partly one of disgust with war and horror of a “return to the trenches,” and partly fear, especially of war in the air.
Here, Churchill did not help his own cause. In his anxiety to alert people to the danger of Hitler, he voiced the expert consensus that aerial warfare would be devastating. He was well informed, too. In addition to Professor Lindemann, the government allowed him to consult Major Desmond Morton, a specialist in military and economic intelligence. Churchill told the House on November 28, 1934, that up to forty thousand Londoners alone would be killed or injured in the first week of war. Baldwin echoed him: “The man in the street ought to realise there is no power on earth to prevent him [in war] being bombed. The bomber will always get through.” General Fuller, the leading expert writer on war, warned that London would become “one vast raving Bedlam,” with “the government swept away in an avalanche of terror.” Left-wing intellectuals like Bertrand Russell stepped up the tale of horror: “Fifty gas-bombers, using Lewisite, can poison all London.”
To add to Churchill’s difficulties, the one issue on which public opinion was roused—the Italian conquest of Abyssinia—had the effect of working against British interests by driving Italy into Hitler’s arms. Churchill did not care much about the Abyssinian issue, though he opposed the act of aggression in principle, nor did he see Italy (as Anthony Eden did) as a major threat to peace, more dangerous than Hitler. It was one of Churchill’s skills that he could distinguish between levels of power and threat, at any rate in Europe. He thought it was important to keep Italy on Britain’s side, as it had been in the Great War, and so keep the Mediterranean firmly under the control of the Royal Navy and the imperial lifeline to India safe. The fuss the government made over Abyssinia, getting the League to impose sanctions (which, of course, did not work), had no effect other than to turn Mussolini into a bitter enemy. He and Hitler signed “the Pact of Steel” and began to coordinate war plans. The Italians had a large fleet and air force, and Churchill realized it would now be necessary to keep half the British fleet in the Mediterranean. He also noted, “The Germans and Italians have 800 bombers between them. We have 47.”
On top of it all came the abdication crisis. By 1935 Churchill’s campaign to alert the nation was making progress. His speeches were growing more passionate and telling as the danger increased, and more and more influential people were saying to him in public, or more likely in private, that they agreed with him. After a speech on April 23, 1936, giving details of German arms expenditure and Britain’s inadequate response, even his old enemy Margot Asquith wrote to him: “I must congratulate you on your wonderful speech.” She had been lunching with Duff Cooper, soon to become first lord of the Admiralty, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, and other notables: “All were full of praise. It relieved the general depression of all of us, and is terribly true. We are at the parting of the ways between war and peace.” Churchill was also building up a little group of able MPs in the Commons, such as Harold Macmillan and his old parliamentary private secretary, Robert Boothby. Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden, both in the government, were now with him.
Then the abdication came out of the blue to mesmerize and inflame the nation, to direct attention totally from the external threat, and to show Churchill at his worst. Baldwin said of Churchill, privately, at this time: “When Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts—imagination, eloquence, industry, ability—and then came a fairy who said ‘No one person has a right to so many gifts,’ picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom. And that is why while we delight to listen to him in this House we do not take his advice.”
This verdict was certainly borne out by Churchill’s quixotic support for the worthless Edward VIII in his bid to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson and still keep his crown. Churchill had, as it were, fallen for Edward, a handsome, slim, fragile figure, when he had helped, as home secretary, to install the future king as Prince of Wales at Carnarvon Castle and read out, in a resonant voice, all his many titles of chivalry. He brought out Churchill’s childish sense of loyalty and toy-soldier mentality. He went to the support of Edward in the dubious company of Lord Beaverbrook, and much to Clemmie’s disgust. As usual he was profuse in offering ingenious solutions for the crisis. But Baldwin, who thought Edward would make a bad constitutional monarch anyway and preferred his brother the Duke of York (the future George VI), outmaneuvered Churchill on every point. In any case, the king preferred abdication to a real battle. As Beaverbrook said to Churchill, “Our cock won’t fight, so it’s no dice.” But when the abdication was more or less inevitable, and MPs were anxious to get it over with and turn to other, pressing matters, Churchill made the error of judgment of a speech urging delay. To his obvious dismay, the House reacted with almost unanimous fury. There were cries of “Drop it” and “Twister,” and he was first shouted down by MPs, then ruled out of order by the Speaker. He shouted in fury at Baldwin, “You won’t be satisfied until you’ve broken him, will you,” then marched out of the chamber. A few minutes later, almost in tears, he said to another MP: “My political career is finished.” Boothby, whom Churchill had not warned of what he intended to do, believed he was drunk after a heavy embassy lunch—the only time when he addressed the House intoxicated—and wrote him a furious letter: “You have reduced the number of your personal supporters to the minimum possible . . . about seven, in all. What happened this afternoon makes me feel that it is almost impossible for those who are more devoted to you personally, to follow you blindly (as they would like to do) in politics. Because they cannot be sure where the Hell they will be landed next.” The scene, Lord Winterton wrote, was “one of the angriest manifestations I have ever heard directed against any man in the House of Commons.” The Spectator summed up the prevailing opinion: “The reputation which he was beginning to shake off of a wayward genius unserviceable in council has settled firmly on his shoulders again.”
Without the fall from grace of Churchill in the abdication crisis of 1936, it is possible that the Czech crisis in 1938 might have taken a different turn. Here are two big questions that Churchill asked at the time. The first: if Britain and France had resisted Hitler over Czechoslovakia, would the German generals have overthrown him? Their chief of staff, Field Marshal Ludwig Beck, said to a politician about to visit Britain, “Bring me back certain proof that England will fight if Czechoslovakia is attacked and I will put an end to this regime.” But such proof was not forthcoming, and anyway Beck was a cowardly boaster who was soon pushed out without a fight. Baldwin had now retired and Neville Chamberlain, his successor, was even more opposed to war. He actually said in public of Czechoslovakia, the state created by Britain and France at Versailles, along with a “big” Poland and Yugoslavia, to balance German power in Central Europe, “It is a far away country, of which we know nothing.” This raises the second question: would the Allies have been better advised to fight over Czechoslovakia in autumn 1938 than over Poland in 1939?
Churchill was quite clear at the time that the answer was yes. The British were now rearming, and Churchill was told that by the end of the year Britain’s production of military aircraft would be faster than Germany’s. On March 21, 1938, the chiefs of staff presented Chamberlain with a paper, “The Military Implication of German Aggression against Czechoslovakia,” which told a terrible story of delays and bottlenecks in the British rearmament program, while admitting it was now gathering pace. The prime minister took from this ambivalent paper the points which backed his view that he must give way to Hitler. Churchill saw the paper and drew the opposite conclusion. His case was this: French morale was beginning to sag and it was vital it should not sag further. It had coordinated its army plans in conjunction with the Poles, Yugoslavs, and above all the Czechs. Germany’s claim to the Czech Sudetenland, the essence of the crisis, was designed not to rectify the injustice of Versailles but to knock the Czechs out of the military equation. The Sudetenland included all the elaborate frontier defenses. Without it, Hitler would be able to walk into the rest of the country without a fight—exactly what happened in March 1939. When Hitler occupied Austria in 1938, he not only released four German divisions for service against France but took over six Austrian ones for retraining under the Nazi flag. The Czech business repeated this switch in the military arithmetic on a much bigger scale. Before the Munich surrender in September 1938, the Czechs had forty divisions believed to be the best equipped in Europe. After the swallowing of Prague, the Germans took over the equipment to form forty divisions of their own. So instead of having forty against them they had forty on their side; this switch was equivalent to the entire French army. The Germans also got possession of the Škoda armaments works, one of the largest in the world. Perhaps equally important, there can be no doubt that the French army would have fought with more confidence and effect in 1939 than it did in 1940. All in all, Churchill was right in believing the Munich surrender was of huge military benefit to Hitler.
His speech of October 5, 1938, denouncing Munich was one of his most powerful, and possibly his saddest. What he had to say, he began, was “unpopular and unwelcome.” Britain had “sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and France has suffered even more than we have.” The utmost Chamberlain had been able to give for Czechoslovakia “has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.” The Czechs would have got better terms by themselves: “Now all is over, silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant.” Now that her frontier fortresses were lost “there was nothing to stop the will of the Conqueror.” He prophesied that, within months, “the Czechs will be engulfed in the Nazi regime.” Churchill added there would be grievous consequences for Britain, for the desertion of the Czechs was the culmination of “five years of eager search for the time of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of British power, five years of neglect of our air defences.” The people were “in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France . . . All the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will make the best terms they can with the triumphant Nazi Power.” Hitler would absorb these regions but “sooner or later he will begin to look westward.” This disaster was “only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” This speech rallied the hard core of his supporters, but they were not many. Only thirteen were prepared to vote against the government. So they all agreed to abstain on the motion to approve Munich—thirty of them. For the first time in nearly forty years, his entire political career, Churchill lost his optimism completely. “I am now greatly distressed,” he wrote to a Canadian friend, “and for the time being staggered by the situation. Hitherto the peace-loving powers have been definitely stronger than the Dictators, but next year we must expect a different balance.”
Then slowly, but with gathering speed, opinion swung against Munich, Chamberlain, and the whole appeasement policy. It was Hitler’s actions rather than Churchill’s oratory which did it. In January 1939 Hitler took the decision to build an immense fleet of battleships, 3 battle cruisers, 4 aircraft carriers, and no less than 249 submarines. So far as Britain was concerned this was a declaration of war. On March 15 he invaded the remains of Czechoslovakia and annexed them, exactly as Churchill had said. A week later he began to threaten Poland. In April, Mussolini, satisfied that democracy was dead and that “the age of force had arrived,” invaded and annexed Albania. In Spain, the military chiefs led by Franco and assisted by Hitler and Mussolini defeated the republican government. Britain and France guaranteed Poland against invasion, and Chamberlain made feeble attempts to draw Russia into a defensive alliance against Hitler. But Hitler easily trumped that and sent his agents to Moscow to sign a pact with Stalin, under which Poland was to be divided between Nazis and Communists, and Russia given a free hand to annex the Baltic states. This was August 1939. The Nazi invasion of Poland followed inevitably on September 1, and Britain and France declared war two days later. Within a month Poland had been swallowed up by the two totalitarian powers.
Since July enormous and puzzling posters had appeared on prominent London sites, asking in giant letters, “What Price Churchill.” The man responsible, an advertising agent, later said, “I wanted to get people thinking about the reinstatement of Churchill.” In fact it happened swiftly once war was declared. Churchill was invited to accept his old post of first lord of the Admiralty, and he did, together with a seat in a war cabinet of six. He wrote: “A very strong sense of calm came over me, after the intense passions and excitements of the last few days. I felt a serenity of mind and was conscious of a kind of uplifted detachment from human and personal affairs.” This was remarkable considering the problems facing him. The year before he had sustained another disaster on the New York Stock Exchange, putting him deeply into debt and forcing him to offer Chartwell up for sale. He was saved by a large and generous interest-free loan from Sir Henry Strakosh, who paid over £18,162.1.10 to Churchill’s stockbroker. At the Admiralty he faced countless problems produced by neglect and inertia over many years and by Chamberlain’s folly—the Anglo-German Naval Treaty, which Hitler had ignored when it suited him, but which Britain had scrupulously observed, and the agreement Chamberlain had signed with De Valera making the “Treaty ports” no longer available to Britain’s anti-U-boat forces.
Despite rumors by his enemies that he was “looking old” and “past it,” Churchill worked fanatically hard—out on inspections most days, “Naval Conference” from 9 :00 to 11:00 p.m., then dictating late into the night. On September 24 he recorded: “During the last three weeks I have not had a minute to think of anything but my task. They are the longest three weeks I have ever lived.” Clemmie wrote: “Winston works night and day. He is well, thank God, and gets tired only if he does not get his 8 hours’ sleep—he does not need it at a stretch, but if he does not get that amount in the 24 he gets weary.” One of his staff, Kathleen Hill, testified, “When Winston was at the Admiralty the place was buzzing with atmosphere, with electricity. When he was away on tour it was dead, dead, dead.” On September 26 he made his first big speech since returning to office. It was a notable success. Harold Nicolson, the parliamentary diarist, recorded: “His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness—one could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word.” Five days later he gave an equally successful broadcast to the nation—the first time he used the radio to stir the public. From the blue came a private letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt, offering friendship. Churchill seized eagerly on it to open up a correspondence with the American president which produced over a thousand letters in the next six years and was of incalculable value in bringing Britain and the United States closer, and in transforming U.S. factories and shipyards into workshops for the anti-Nazi crusade.
Hard as Churchill worked, however, he had little power in the general conduct of the war, which languished in inactivity—it was known as “the Phony War”—leaving the initiative to Hitler. In April 1940 the Nazis struck at Denmark and Norway, in May at Holland and Belgium. None put up a fight. The British intervention in Norway was a failure, despite Churchill’s efforts. The army proved no good at combined operations, the RAF could not operate so far from its bases, and the Germans controlled the air. German naval losses were heavy: three cruisers and ten destroyers lost, two heavy cruisers and a pocket battleship put out of action. This had the effect later in the summer of helping to dissuade Hitler from a direct invasion of England. On the other hand, in the long term it meant virtually the whole of the western coast of Europe was available for U-boat bases.
It was soon clear that the Norwegian campaign was a disaster, and on May 7-8 the Commons held an impromptu inquest, what became known in history as “the Norway debate.” It has been recognized as the most important held in Parliament in the twentieth century. Churchill’s speech was the only one made for the government which showed conviction, hope, and resolution for the future. He scrupulously refrained from criticizing his colleagues, especially Chamberlain, even by implication. But it was clear that he was the only minister making sense. Chamberlain was attacked from all sides, one senior Tory quoting Cromwell: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” Lloyd George said it was the most dramatic climax of a speech he had ever heard. In the vote, the government majority fell from its usual 213 to 81. Many Tories voted against it and there were still more abstentions. Chamberlain decided to resign. It now became obvious there would have to be an all-party coalition. Labour made it clear that it would accept only Halifax or Churchill as leader. Churchill, for once, kept his mouth shut and let others do the talking. King George VI, a conventional man brought up to regard Churchill as a menace, favored Halifax, the establishment candidate. But Halifax ruled himself out: he could not, he said, run a crisis government from the House of Lords. By 6:00 p.m. on Friday, May 10, Churchill got the job he had worked for. Twelve hours earlier the Germans had begun the decisive campaign against France. Early reports were bad as Churchill was forming his cabinet. He did not get to bed till 3:00 a.m. But his courage was high. He recorded:
I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the past six years had been so numerous, so detailed and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me.I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all and I was sure I would not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.