He saved us. He very likely saved Christian Civilization. Not many men can make that claim. Some in recent years have suggested we should have stayed out and that it would have been no big deal if Europe had become part of a greater Nazi Empire, which I find shocking. Try making that argument with anyone whose ancestors lived in Europe during the 30's or 40's or anyone who happens to be Jewish. Isolationism has its moral limitations. And its pragmatic ones (just ask the Dutch and Belgians). Try to imagine a world dominated to the East by a Nazi Reich and to the West by an Asiatic Japanese Empire with just us left in the middle somewhere with our heads buried in the sand like a giant ostrich.
But even those well versed in history have a hard time comprehending just how truly bleak it was in that long ago summer of 1940.
Germany had annexed or conquered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. France, hitherto the world's preeminent military power, had been smashed in a month and German troops were goosestepping under the Arc of Triumph. The British Army had been hurled back to the sea. In one of the most desperate actions in the history of any war, a flotilla made up of every boat that could be found in the British Isles was sent across the channel to try and save whoever they could. The evacuation was carried out while under constant air and artillery attack. In London the military warned that they expected to loose 80-90% of the army.
Somehow most of the army was saved. Over 370,000 men were rescued. But almost all of the army's tanks, artillery and military hardware was left behind. Many soldiers had even been forced to abandon their rifles. Those who had rifles often had only the bullets they were able to carry on their person off the beach.
This was the situation in June of 1940. Europe was mostly conquered and France was folding like a cheap lawn chair. Britain was alone with an army that had no heavy equipment and a critical shortage of small arms and ammunition. Her air force was outnumbered by nearly 2:1. At sea British merchant ships were being torpedoed at a rate that would reduce the nation to starvation if it was not checked. Hitler controlled the French ports and was staring across the channel planning his victory dinner in Buckingham Palace.
But he was faced by a man who was, if you believe in such things, put on this earth for exactly this moment.
He was born in a palace, the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. As a young man he served in the army and fought in some of his country's colonial wars. He also earned a credible reputation as a journalist for his daring exploits while covering the Boer War. In politics he shocked his fellow blue bloods by switching loyalties to the Liberal Party where he championed some of the great social reforms of the first decade of the 20th century. Churchill fought with the Liberals against child labor, for mine safety laws in Wales, old age pensions, free meals for children in schools, unemployment insurance and the first steps towards what would eventually become Britain's national health insurance. In the great battles of 1910-1912 he supported the constitutional reforms that stripped the veto power from the House of Lords. An act for which he was never completely forgiven by his own social class.
He was First Lord of the Admiralty when the Great War broke out but fell from grace and political office after being blamed (not without some cause) for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. Later he served in the front lines in France. And yet somehow managed to emerge from the horror of the trenches with his romantic notions of war intact. A brief return to office in the 20's proved short lived as he quarreled with his own party (the Conservatives again) over relaxing colonial rule.
By the 1930's what had once been a promising political career was over. He had twice switched parties and was disliked and distrusted as much by his fellow Conservatives as by Labour. Most of the decade was spent warning in vain of the dangers of a rearmed and militaristic Germany while being accused of war mongering. He was a washed up has-been living in the past. A man who still believed in Empire and Monarchy and noblesse oblige.
When war finally came and he could no longer be ignored Neville Chamberlain restored him as head of the Navy. On the morning of May 10th 1940, as Germany launched its long planned invasion of France along with the isolationist - neutral low countries and Chamberlain's government collapsed, it was to him that the nation turned.
By 1940 Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was old and overweight. He was a heavy cigar smoker who drank brandy like water. In almost every respect he was a romantic aristocratic anachronism.
Now in mid June he had only been Prime Minister for a few weeks and the nation teetered on the brink of not just military defeat, but possible extinction. And there at the helm was a man from another era. A man who still believed that war could be both honorable and glorious. And in that long dark year of 1940, for just a brief moment in time he made an entire country believe the same thing.
As each new report of disaster came to the war cabinet (composed of the leaders of all political parties) it was inevitable the question would be raised as to how long they could go on. In one famous incident Churchill answered it. Representations were made that Germany was prepared to offer "generous terms" if Britain were to make peace. The event was recreated with an admirable respect for historical accuracy in this scene from the HBO film "Into the Storm."
Shortly after that he spoke to the House of Commons and by radio to the British people. Across the Atlantic America listened too, wondering if this was the end.
The answer was given, and the question never asked again.