Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Churchill Takes Charge

May 10, 1940

Rarely have a man and a moment been so wonderfully matched as in May 1940, when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain. His ascension was improbable. Churchill spent the 1930s in the political wilderness, calling for rearmament against Germany and, on his return to government in 1939, was limited to control of the navy. But military disasters such as the Nazi seizure of Norwegian ports convinced the British public that Neville Chamberlain was not up to the job of fighting a war.

By the night of May 8, after a stormy debate in the House of Commons, Chamberlain's position had become untenable. The opposition Labour Party would serve in a government of national unity only if it were led by Churchill, and on the evening of May 10, as German troops massed against France, he accepted office from King George VI. Three days later, Churchill promised Britain only "blood, toil, tears and sweat." What he gave his country, above all, was leadership.