Churchill's Finest Hour- World War II 1939-1945

"Never Give In!"

"You ask, what is our policy? It is to wage war." "You ask, what is our aim? ...It is victory."

The world's most enduring image of Winston Churchill is that of Britain's wartime leader - determined scowl, homburg hat, ever-present cigar, the V-for victory sign. Churchill was sixty-five years old in May 1940, yet his energy exhausted aides half his age.

From bombed-out London streets ,to far-flung battlefields, to the capitals of Moscow and Washington, he seemed to be everywhere. He was.

Churchill's words of encouragement, challenge, and inspiration seemed just right for each occasion.

When Churchill became Prime Minister, at Britain's most desperate hour, he remarked, "I felt as if... all my life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." It was.

"Their Finest Hour" 1940

"How the British People held the fort alone till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready."

Within a month of Churchill becoming Prime Minister in May 1940, most of Europe from Poland to France had fallen to Nazi domination. Russia had signed a non-aggression treaty, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, with Germany (1939). Italy had declared war on Britain (June 1940). The United States continued to sit on the sidelines. Japan was about to join forces with Germany and the Axis Powers.

The British Empire countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, later, South Africa followed Britain in declaring war, but could provide minimal immediate support. Hitler's armies were looking at Britain as their next target.

Before Hitler could invade Britain itself, he had to knock out the Royal Air Force. From June through the fall, a massive air battle raged in the skies over England as the Luftwaffe bombed air bases and civilian targets. The Battle of Britain peaked on September 15, 1940. At its height, Churchill asked Air Vice Marshall Park, "What other reserves have we?" Park replied, "There are none."

Two days later Hitler cancelled the invasion of Britain; the Battle of Britain was won.

Blitz on London

On 31 August, Hitler ordered bombers to attack London rather than the airfields. German aircraft had earlier bombed London by mistake. When Churchill ordered a retaliation raid on Berlin, Hitler responded in kind. This diversion allowed the RAF to rebuild its strength. In a sense, the Blitz saved the RAF and Britain itself.

Britain survived 1940 and war from the skies. But, at sea, German submarines had sunk 567 merchant ships carrying 2,771,483 gross tons of vital supplies. Britain was losing the battle at sea despite the 50 aging WWI-era destroyers the United States had provided in exchange for land to establish air and naval bases on seven British possessions in the Caribbean and Newfoundland.

Italy's invasion of Greece (October 1940) was keeping a large number of Italian troops occupied and brought Britain an ally, but victory was nowhere in sight.

"The Grand Alliance" 1941

For Britain, 1941 was a desperate scramble. Britain had thwarted Hitler's invasion plan, but its retaliation was confined to a small Bomber Command force limited to nighttime raids.

The Nazi forces continued their march. Germany defeated the British in Greece and Yugoslavia surrendered. Initial British victories in North Africa against the Italians were reversed by the arrival of German forces under Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox."

In Asia, Japan pressed further into China, occupied French Indo-China (Vietnam), and threatened the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.

In one glimmer of hope, President Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act (March 1941). This permitted the United States to provide war material to Britain, including WWI-era destroyers to combat German submarines.

In June 1941, Hitler astonished the world again by invading Germany's nominal ally Russia, turning it into an ally of Britain. Churchill, a long-time anti-communist, remarked, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference of the Devil in the House of Commons."

Britain strengthened its ties to the United States with the Atlantic Charter 14 August 1941 in a meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland.

Japan attacked the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. President Roosevelt cabled Churchill, "Today all of us are in the same boat...and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk." "That night," Churchill later recalled, "I slept the sleep of the saved and thankful."

When Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941, Churchill's "Grand Alliance" was fully formed.

"Ultra" Secret

"They were the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled."

One of the war's best-kept secrets was that British code breakers were reading German signals traffic. Timely distribution of this intelligence- codenamed "Ultra" - was instrumental in winning the war.

The Germans coded or enciphered radio messages using a typewriter-like "Enigma" machine containing several sets of rotors for each letter of the alphabet. Since each rotor could be changed, reset, or reversed, the Enigma could produce billions of combinations.

To decipher the message, the recipient needed another Enigma machine and the correct roto settings. The reader typed the coded text and the machine produced the original message.

At Britain's Bletchley Park, teams of men and women worked around the clock deciphering messages with their ever-changing cipher combinations. Their ability to decipher the codes depended greatly on capturing German codebooks and of course the possession of an Enigma. The first machine was captured by the British Royal Navy in May 1941. All told the allies managed to secure just three Enigma machines - two courtesy of the British and one via the USA - but also managed to capture many codebooks. The successful breaching of the German system was significant to the outcome of WWII.

"The Hinge of Fate" 1942

"How the power of the Grand Alliance became preponderant."

Britain was heartened by the entry of the United States into the war. But December 1941 through the first half of 1942 brought nothing but disaster and reversal.

Japan ran wild in the South China Sea. On Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong surrendered; Singapore followed on 15 February 1942, and Rangoon on 8 March. India appeared to be at risk. Japan moved into the Netherlands East Indies and threatened Australia. The Germans ground their way toward Stalingrad. General Rommel recaptured Tobruk in North Africa.

However, fate swung in the second half of 1942 as Allied forces decisively stopped both Japan and Germany.

Midway (4-6 June 1942) - The Turning Point in the Pacific. The Japanese fleet sortied to finish off the American carriers missed at Pearl Harbor. The Allies ambushed the Japanese northwest of Midway, destroying four or their five frontline carriers. Their naval power in the Pacific was broken.

Stalingrad (28 June 1942- 2 February 1943) - The Turning Point on the Eastern Front. The German Army was trained and equipped for short decisive battles, but the brutal street fighting of Stalingrad did not play to Germany's strengths. Lack of winter equipment, harassment by Soviet partisans and the eventual cutting off of the supply lines took their toll. The German Army would penetrate no further into Russia. Virtually all German troops in Stalingrad were killed or captured - Germany's first convincing defeat in the East.

El Alamein (23 October - November 1942) - The Turning Point in North Africa. After more than a year of inconclusive back and forth battles in North Africa, British Empire troops led by General Montgomery defeated the German and Italian forces at El Alamein.

The Counter-Offensive (8 November 1942) - Operation Torch. The Allied landing in Algeria and Morocco - the first major American action in the ETO - began to drive the Germans out of Africa from the west. These combined operations provided the staging ground for the future Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy.

The Axis powers were now in retreat, but they continued to exact a terrible toll. In 1942 German submarines in the North Atlantic sank 1,323 merchant ships, sending 7,047,744 tons of cargo to the bottom.

"Closing the Ring" 1943-1944

"How Nazi Germany was isolated and assailed on all sides."

Throughout 1943 and 1944 the Allies fought many bitter battles and sustained many casualties. But the direction of battle was always the same - Germany and Japan were slowly but surely being pushed back.

The Pacific - Japan was attacked from three directions. Allied forces moved up the Southwest Pacific through New Guinea towards the Philippines. The British-Indian Army handed the Japanese major defeats in Burma. And the United States fast carrier task forces swept across the Central Pacific from island to island, ever closer to Japan.

The Second Front - The Russians had taken the brunt of German ground operations in 1941, 1942 and 1943. They defeated the Germans in February 1943 at Stalingrad and at Kursk in July in the largest tank battle in history, but at a staggering cost in Russian lives and material. Stalin kept demanding a second front. Two strategies developed to deal with the urgency of a "second front" and to give the Allies time to build up for an invasion of northern Europe.

  1. A combined bomber offensive using British aircraft by night and American by day.
  2. An attack first on Sicily (July), then Italy (September)to build on the success of the British in North Africa and Operation Torch.

Liberation of Europe - The largest amphibious assault in history began on "D-Day," 6 June 1944. The invasion - many years in the planning and long demanded by Stalin - was anticipated by the Germans. But a sophisticated deception plan, "Operation Fortitude," kept Hitler expecting the attack at the narrowest point of the English Channel at the Pas de Calais.

Instead the blow fell on Normandy. Two beachheads were assigned to Americans, two to British, and one to Canadians. The fierce fighting resulted in great casualties. After failing to make as rapid progress as initially imagined during the first few weeks of the landings, the Western Allies broke out into France. Meanwhile the Red Army was flooding into Poland and the Balkans. From west and east, the "ring" around Germany was being drawn ever tighter.

"Triumph and Tragedy" 1945

"How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life."

World War II killed more people, exhausted more wealth, devastated more property, and covered more territory than any other war in history. Twenty-six countries were combatants and over fifty-five million people perished - the majority civilians.

It ended in 1945. Germany - its Führer killed by his own hand - surrended in May with the Allies occupying all its territory. Japan surrendered in September after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Churchill saw the victory as a triumph that yielded tragedy.

In Europe, the Allies vanquished Nazi tyranny. However, another brutal tyranny now controlled Eastern Europe. World War II started with Germany trying to take Poland, and ended with Russia doing so. As in 1919, one war's end set the stage for the next - this time, The Cold War.

The war would eventually cost Britain its Empire. Churchill - a life-long defender - saw British imperialism as a force for good, bringing benefits of liberty and the rule of law. Yet, in 1942, the realities of war led Winston to propose a plan for self-rule in India to ensure the country's popular will to continue fighting for the Allies. It was the beginning of the inevitable. By war's end, Britain was too bankrupt and exhausted to maintain an empire. While Churchill did not "preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," his successors did.

Churchill himself became a casualty of war. With Germany defeated, the Labour Party, sensing it could win on its own, pulled out of the Wartime coalition and a General Election was held in July of 1945. The British people, having seen in wartime that a government-managed economy could work, did not fear socialism. Polls showed the people desired a Labour government with Churchill as Prime Minister. One election poster told the story, "Cheer Churchill - Vote Labour."

The Labour Party won the election by a landslide. Churchill, in a humiliating defeat, was out. A bitter irony, the election occurred between VE Day in May and VJ Day in August. Winston celebrated the European victory as Prime Minister but watched Japan's surrender from the sidelines.

Clementine, trying to ease his pain, said, "It may well be a blessing in disguise." Winston responded, "At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised."


“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill