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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Churchill Becomes Prime Minister

10 May 1940

Location: London, Britain
Players: Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax
Outcome: Churchill, the new Prime Minister, eventually led the country to victory against Germany and the Axis powers.

'I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' - Winston Churchill, 13 May 1940, three days after becoming Prime Minister

Winston Churchill leaving No. 10 Downing Street in August 1940
Winston Churchill leaving No. 10 Downing Street in August 1940©
Sir Winston Churchill described his role leading Britain through World War Two as his 'walk with destiny' - a destiny for which he believed he had spent his life in preparation.

From as early as 1936 he was making noises in Parliament about the overwhelming rate of German rearmament. His campaign made him unpopular with an administration which favoured appeasement and feared hostilities before UK rearmament could be completed. It wasn't until his appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939 that Parliament was reminded of Churchill's skills as a leader and his capacity for brilliant strategising. A signal went round the British fleet announcing 'Winston is back!'

Churchill's predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, had failed to fully estimate the intentions of the Nazi regime and following a series of events which led to the crisis in Norway in April 1940, he faced heavy criticism in Parliament. On 9 May 1940 he made the decision to resign and requested a meeting with Conservative MP Lord Halifax and with Churchill, certain that one or the other was his successor. When Halifax refused, Churchill leapt at the offer.

With Chamberlain out of the picture, Churchill reformed government, creating a coalition in the face of national crisis. He himself became minister for defence at the head of a Defence Committee. He surrounded himself by complimentary military staff, among them Marshal Hugh Dowding, General Hastings Ismay, Admiral Dudley Pound and Field Marshal John Dill. Later service heads included Field Marshal Alan Brooke and Sir Charles Portal. These men were essential to his vision of a war machine, unflinching in its belief in ultimate victory over barbarism.

Churchill was experienced in warfare, from both the civilian's and soldier's point of view. He had seen active service in Cuba and India - famously engaging there in hand-to-hand combat - and he used his position as a journalist to fight for peace in the Boer War.

He also played a vital role in World War One. After seeing action on the Western Front from 1915-16, he was appointed Lloyd George's minister of munitions in 1917, and he was involved in the mass production of tanks, crucial to Britain's victory. Churchill learned a great deal from World War One, which influenced his policy when Britain once again faced the threat from Germany. As Churchill saw it, the way to fight a war was to ensure cohesion between government and army. The failure of conduct in World War One had been the rift between ministers and military leaders.

By late 1940 he had developed his strategy; it was simply a matter of time, as far as he was concerned, before the Axis powers were defeated.

His other great talent was the ability to galvanise an entire nation and he depended on eloquence and intelligence to impart national spirit and unflinching determination in the face of Germany and Italy's warmongering. Even though he promised nothing more than 'blood, toil, tears and sweat', he inspired courage on the Home Front.

Throughout the war he worked tirelessly, and built good relations with President Roosevelt at the same time as maintaining an alliance with the Soviet Union. His overriding aim was to woo support from the US. His first step to achieving the coalition came with the destroyers-for-bases negotiation, which won Britain the lease of 50 much-needed US naval destroyers in exchange for the use of military bases, mostly in the Caribbean. Over the next five years, the partnership developed, not always smoothly, but as Churchill anticipated, it became crucial to winning the war.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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