On May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the launch of Plan Yellow, the code name for a long planned “blitzkrieg” designed to smash the combined armies of Belgium, Holland, France and Great Britain.
On that same day in England angry debate in the Palace of Westminster was posing a greater threat to democracy than Hitler’s triumphant army and air force. A month earlier, in April, Denmark and Norway had fallen to the German juggernaut despite earlier boasts the British Navy would be more than adequate to prevent Nazi aggression.
Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a long-time advocate of appeasement with Hitler, listened to the debate with little comment even as both Opposition and his own party’s back benchers condemned his timorous response to the growing military threat.
The complacency came to an end on May 7 when a former First Lord of the Admiralty, Tory MP Leo Amery, shook the House of Commons, indeed all England, with a denunciation of Chamberlain not heard since 1653 when Cromwell told Parliament it was no longer fit to govern and to vacate the premises. Amery said he spoke with reluctance “because I am speaking of those who are old friends and colleagues,” but they need to be told some truths. Speaking directly to Chamberlain he declaimed: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
Three days later on May 10 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, as the German army thundered to the coast and in 17 days held the British Army, plus thousands of French, Polish, Belgium and Dutch soldiers, trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. Across the English Channel Churchill was fighting the toughest and most important battle he ever fought.
Churchill had quickly organized a War Cabinet comprised of Labour, Liberal and Conservative MPs. It was not a united cabinet. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, both members at Churchill’s invitation, strongly maintained their appeasement positions claiming there had been an offer from Italian dictator Mussolini to act as go-between with Churchill and Hitler. They urged Churchill to at least consider the offer.
For five days they argued. Churchill remained adamant. There would be no compromise unless Hitler gave back all land militarily occupied in recent years.
On May 13 Churchill chaired a morning meeting of the war cabinet where the cry for appeasement became louder as bad news from Europe continued unabated. He adjourned the meeting until seven o’clock that evening and took himself over to the House of Commons. Historian and collector of Churchill speeches, Robert Rhodes James, MP, said the mood was tense when Churchill rose to speak: “The news from Europe was bad and was getting worse,” he wrote. “The public, although not yet frightened, was confused and alarmed, and the House of Commons tense.”
The House fell silent as Churchill begged to move “that this House welcome the formation of a government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.”
He swept on with only modest apology for any “lack of ceremony (parliamentary protocol) with which it has been necessary to act” and added the first of what would become many rallying cries to parliament and the people: “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government (in the war cabinet still briefly adjourned) I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
We are told the Commons sat in stunned silence as he marched on, unafraid to talk about “the ordeal ahead of a most grievous kind….We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering…..(as we) wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
His challenge to those who still thought they could buy peace with concessions to Hitler was clear: “What is our aim? Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, however long or hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival….Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”
Robert Rhodes James tells us: “When the speech ended the House of Commons, after a brief stunned silence, erupted into a rare and moving ovation. Churchill himself was deeply moved. As he walked out of the chamber, past the Speaker’s chair, he was almost in tears. He looked up, and caught the eye of his old friend and personal aide Desmond Morton. “That got the sods, didn’t it?”’ he said.”
It is 73 years since Churchill won his battle with those in England who admired Hitler and some 50 years since he died. And many are those who have forgotten he was the man who “got the sods” and won the home front battle that eventually won the war.