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Facing Hitler Alone Essay, Research Paper

The legacy of Winston Churchill has survived into the 21st century with its

almost mythical qualities well intact. History remembers him, without

overstating, as the eloquently spoken, sharp-witted British Prime Minister who,

through determination, perseverance, and principle, took his country’s burden

upon his shoulders and turned what could have been the British Empire’s final

hour into, as Churchill emphatically declared, "their finest hour."

While Churchill’s legendary status is well-known (and well-deserved), the

methods and policies by which he employed to prepare his island for the Nazi

onslaught are not as well known. The most commonly cited example of Churchill’s

leadership is, of course, his "Finest Hour" speech following the fall

of France. However, words alone were of little protection as Hitler’s Luftwaffe

prepared to cross the Channel.

Therefore, it is my intention to examine the main actions taken by Churchill

while preparing his nation for the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of

1940. Through the review of British policy and activity after he assumed the

head of government just prior to the fall of Dunkirk in late-May until the

beginning of the Luftwaffe’s offensive in mid-August, 1940, Churchill’s crusade

to brace his nation for war will be shown as an offensive campaign on three

fronts: political stabilization, speeches to the Commons and public, and

military build-up. These areas into which Churchill dedicated all of his energy

were the foundation for British preparation prior to the Blitz. Like a

three-legged stool, the failure of one leg could cause the collapse of the

nation’s will and ability to survive what Churchill knew was eminent.

In order to properly put Churchill’s actions into perspective, England’s

situation in April and May 1940 must be assessed. When on May 10 Churchill, then

Dominions Secretary (a non-cabinet post) and member of the Conservative party,

was asked by King George VI to form a government upon the resignation of

Conservative leader Neville Chamberlain, the German Wehrmacht had already

introduced its blitzkrieg-style warfare to the ill-prepared British

Expeditionary and French forces in northern France. Furthermore, Churchill was

not the heir-apparent to Chamberlain’s seat. He had not even been George VI’s

first choice for the post, whom along with Chamberlain and the senior civil

servants preferred Lord Halifax. George VI was still at odds over Churchill for

supporting Edward VIII in his abdication of the British throne, and Chamberlain

and the civil servants perceived Churchill as being without a strong party base.

After Lord Halifax withdrew from the appointment due to his unwillingness to

ascend to the post as a peer rather than an elected member of Parliament,

Churchill was reluctantly given the nod.

Thus, Churchill assumed the reins of a war cabinet amidst international and

political turmoil. In order to effectively conduct the war effort at home and

abroad, Churchill had to first assemble a stable coalition within the

government. As previously mentioned, he had his skeptics in Parliament. Though

he was now Prime Minister, Chamberlain remained the leader of the Conservative

party. Upon entering the Commons on May 13 for the first address of his

premiership, he was greeted with polite applause by the chamber whereas

Chamberlain’s entrance was met with cheers. Churchill had to assemble his war

cabinet carefully so as not to alienate the parties. He was, after all,

attempting to assemble a coalition stable enough to carry the nation through a

period of unprecedented international instability. Senior Conservative leaders

Chamberlain and Halifax were appointed as Lord President of the Council and

Foreign Secretary, respectively. Churchill also sought to include leaders of the

Labour party, such as Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood, though Labour would

only constitute one-third of the new government appointments. Churchill’s new

cabinet would be indicative of his sensibility and level-mindedness in the face

of crisis. There was no condemnation of the Chamberlainites by exclusion, nor

was there a flood of Churchill’s own loyal supporters. His coalition emerged as

wisely balanced and relatively stable.

Churchill also knew that political stability was not only vital to the

immediate purpose of moving the nation forward in its war-time policies, but

also to the maintenance of national morale. Sustaining morale among the people

would be a guiding principle in all of his decisions throughout the war, and

this was the same principle which led him to seek the inclusion of Lloyd George

into the cabinet in May 1940. This was a tricky maneuver by Churchill for

several reasons. First, Lloyd George had a reputation of being soft on Hitler;

in 1936, after returning from a meeting with the Fuhrer, George praised him as,

"the greatest living German." Furthermore, George and Chamberlain had

a long standing feud between them. Churchill was willing to risk these potential

problems, however. The addition of George to the war cabinet would, he felt,

convey a larger sense of unity within the country. Also, but only as a matter of

speculation, Churchill wanted George in a position to assume his seat at the

head of the government should the Britain face defeat. George, he believed,

would be better suited to negotiate with Hitler than others within the

government, should Britain meet such a fate.

George would not accept Churchill’s offer, citing that he could not work with

a man like Chamberlain, whom he despised. Although it was not necessary to have

George in the cabinet, Churchill would press the issue on two more occasions. In

doing so, Churchill had to also contend with Chamberlain’s objections to the

appointment. He finally persuaded Chamberlain to agree to the idea in early June

provided that Churchill would convince the London newspapers to refrain from

bashing Chamberlain and the Chamberlainites for the lack of military readiness

revealed at Dunkirk. Some historians contend that Churchill was pleased with the

attacks on Chamberlain and his "Guilty Men" as they liberated

Churchill from the resentment he received from the Commons when he first began

his premiership. However, this does not appear to be the case as Churchill

agreed to ask the newspapers to drop their attacks on Chamberlain. Despite this,

George still refused to join the war cabinet. Nonetheless, Churchill’s courting

of Lloyd George demonstrates the lengths to which he would go in order to

project a sense of unity within the government and have that unity bolster the

nation’s morale and confidence.

The most direct way in which Churchill addressed the issue of national morale

was through his speeches to the House of Commons and on BBC radio. It is out of

these numerous speeches that Churchill’s reputation as a master of the spoken

word and savior to a nation has emerged. Throughout the weeks that lingered

between the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, Churchill’s speeches

affected his people much in the same way as the "Fireside Chats" of

his counterpart, President Franklin Roosevelt, affected the American public

during the Great Depression. They were speeches meant to strengthen the

fortitude of the British people. The words spoken by Churchill were to be a fuel

added to the flame of patriotism, courage, and the condemnation of the Nazi

threat poised across the English Channel. While the specific events that brought

Churchill to speak were different each time, the themes Churchill spoke of

remained the same. These themes were the long and bitter fight that lay ahead

with the impending Luftwaffe attacks and possible invasion, and the

determination to carry on the fight, unlike France, to every corner of the

Empire. Most important, though, was the insistence that Britain would be able to

effectively engage in a fight against the Nazis, and preserve the nation as the

last bastion of freedom in Europe.

Of course, the British people did not find inspiration in Churchill’s words

alone. It was the evacuation of Dunkirk, or as was commonly dubbed the

"miracle" of Dunkirk, that gave Churchill’s words plausibility. The

psychological effect of Dunkirk on British morale cannot be ignored. While the

evacuation was, by any military man’s standards, an overwhelming defeat, it

shored-up British morale on three levels. First, and most vital in light of the

anticipated Nazi offensive, the Royal Air Force proved its effectiveness against

the German Luftwaffe. Though the RAF was greatly outnumbered by the German air

force, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes destroyed as many as three Messerschmitts

for every one RAF fighter downed. The Royal navy proved its superiority over the

German navy throughout the evacuation by holding off the Nazis and aiding in the

rescue of over 320,000 British and French troops. Furthermore, Britain knew it

would live to fight another day, and that when the fight did arrive, it could

stand-up to the Germans.

Two of Churchill’s most famous speeches, made after the evacuation of Dunkirk

on 4 June, and after the fall of France on 18 June, encompassed these themes. In

reaction to Dunkirk, while addressing the House of Commons, Churchill

proclaimed:

We shall go to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas

and the 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.

Two weeks later, Churchill painted a broader and more urgent picture of the

responsibility that the nation was forced to accept. He spoke of the survival of

"Christian civilization" not only in Europe, but throughout the world.

He suggested the two roads that lay ahead–one in which Hitler has won and

Europe falls into the, "abyss of a new Dark Age," and one in which

Hitler has lost and the freed civilizations walk, "forward into broad,

sunlit uplands." This, Churchill asserted, would be looked back upon as the

Empire’s, "finest hour."

Churchill also spoke frequently of London as a "City of Refuge" for

all of Europe. This was by no means an understatement. In the weeks leading up

to the Battle of Britain, a steadily increasing number of Polish, French,

Belgian, and Norwegian soldiers sought refuge in London, the last major European

city not under the control of the Axis Powers. The city had also become the new

home for Europe’s exiled leaders such as the queen of Holland, the king of

Norway, and the President of Poland. The people of England knew that what was at

stake was not simply their own sovereignty, but as Churchill said, the freedom

of the entire continent.

As previously stated, it would take more than just words and imagery to

counter the ferocity of the Nazi war-machine. After the fall of France,

Churchill and the government knew that in order to survive the impending German

offensive on Great Britain, production of aircraft and armaments would have to

be raised to the highest levels possible, troops would have to be trained and

mobilized, defense strategies would have to be devised, and with unoccupied

France tied to Germany by an armistice, what was left of the French naval fleet

would have to either be brought under the control of Britain, neutralized, or

destroyed.

Luckily, Churchill had made a wise decision in his appointment of W. M

Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production. Beaverbrook was a capable man

for the position, and though German aircraft production had outnumbered British

production by almost 10,000 in the previous three years, Beaverbrook had

increased the British rate of production to a level doubling that of Germany’s

by the time the Luftwaffe took to the air over England. The state of British

troops represented another major problem, as well. The Battle of France had

decimated the officer corps, and Churchill worried about the army’s

organization. To resolve this problem, Churchill ordered the rapid promotion for

officers of ability and instructed the army to create and organize British

storm-troopers based on the German model. Furthermore, he facilitated the

creation of smaller, more mobile units that included tank hunters and special

force units.

Preparation for an expected German land-invasion of the island required much

more thought and detail. Churchill anticipated the Germans to attempt a landing

from the Channel that fall, and involved himself in every detail of the defense

strategy. The most vital area of Britain’s defense plan was the southern

coastline. Churchill feared that if Hitler could get a foothold on the

coastline, the war could be lost in a matter of weeks. His plan called for a

concentration of men and barriers along the coast with anti-tank obstacles. If

the Germans were able to get ashore and break the British line, the small,

mobile forces previously described would advance from their inland positions to

fill any gaps.

Had this strategy failed, the fate of Britain would have been left to the

Home Guard, a civilian force that had been organized and trained to fight street

to street, house to house. In reference to a possible German advance into

English cities, and the employment of the Home Guard in combat against the

Wehrmacht, Churchill darkly advocated the motto, "You can always take one

with you." Naturally, he was apprehensive about this being the last line of

defense for the nation, and pushed for the relocation of more regular army

troops inland and among the cities. Wars, Churchill wrote, "are not won by

heroic militias."

One of Churchill’s most significant contributions to British morale and

Britain’s military situation was also one of the hardest decisions he had to

make during the war. Following the establishment of the Vichy regime in southern

France under the leadership of Marshal Philippe P?tain, Britain gave the French

government an ultimatum in reference to what remained of their naval forces.

Fearing that German control of France’s modern fleet of battleships would be

disastrous to the British war- effort, Churchill ordered that either the French

agree to send their fleet to British ports, American waters, scuttle the vessels

themselves, or Britain would destroy them herself. After P?tain and the Vichy

government ignored the ultimatum, British naval forces opened fire on the fleet

harbored in the Mers-el-K?bir naval base on 3 July. Two of the battleships

managed to escape, but several more were destroyed and 1,250 French sailors were

killed. While this event effectively ended official diplomatic relations between

Britain and her former ally, the British people and the House of Commons praised

Churchill for his swift and decisive action in what was Britain’s first

significant offensive action of the war. Churchill characterized the ordeal as,

"heartbreaking."

In the tense period between the Nazi invasion of France and the Battle of

Britain, Churchill had suddenly assumed the reins of a nation facing its most

serious crisis in centuries. He found himself leading an empire that had not

been conquered since 1066, yet was facing invasion by an army that had swept

through Western Europe in mere months. Britain’s strongest European ally would

be crushed in weeks, leaving her the next recipient of Hitler’s aggression. Yet

Churchill moved quickly and surely to prepare his nation for its inevitable war

of survival. Churchill employed significant measures in the area of political

compromise, national morale, and military readiness, without which could have

marked the defeat of Great Britain. His dedication to the defense of the nation

would be the most powerful weapon Britain possessed. Churchill’s will to win at

all costs would inspire his people, rally his troops, and earn the cooperation

of his peers. The weeks leading up to the Battle of Britain will remain in

history as his finest hour.

Collier, Basil. The Battle of Britain. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1962.

Cosgrave, Patrick. Churchill at War. London: Collins, 1974.

Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World War. London: Routledge, 1999.

Jullian, Marcel. The Battle of Britain. New York: The Orion Press, 1965.

Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.,

1976.

Lukacs, John. The Duel. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1991.


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