Desperate Years

After conquering Poland, Hitler menaces the rest of Europe. Churchill's reply: "We shall never surrender"

  • Share
  • Read Later

Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do . . .

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.

-- SEPTEMBER 1, 1939, by W.H. AUDEN*

If one man could be singled out as Hitler's most resolute and effective antagonist, it was Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. On the day the Germans attacked Poland, he was 64 years old and had held no Cabinet post in ten years. Yet in all the West, his was the voice that had most forcefully denounced Hitler, most prophetically warned that Britain must rearm to resist him. While Parliament approved the Munich agreement, Churchill called it "a total and unmitigated defeat." He said of Neville Chamberlain, "In the depths of that dusty soul, there is nothing but abject surrender."

Churchill was no hero to the House of Commons, though. Conservative regulars mistrusted him for his 20-year defection to the Liberals, while liberals blamed him for the ill-fated British intervention in Russia in 1918-19. He had a large ego and a sharp tongue, and he drank too much brandy, but he also had qualities that were to prove indispensable -- courage, eloquence, energy and a passionate determination to save British democracy. No sooner had the Germans invaded Poland than Chamberlain reluctantly invited his chief critic to No. 10 Downing Street and asked him to join the Cabinet; Churchill thereupon became First Lord of the Admiralty. "Churchill in the Cabinet," Goring said when he heard the news. "That means war is really on."

Unlike Chamberlain, Churchill was determined to go on the attack and persuaded his Cabinet colleagues to stage a spectacular landing in northern Norway. His original scheme was to intervene in the Russo-Finnish war, which Stalin had launched on Nov. 30, 1939. Finland's well-trained and determined army of 300,000 had fought the Red Army to a standstill. Churchill's plan was to land a British expeditionary force at the northern Norwegian port of Narvik, cut across to the Swedish iron mines at Gallivare (which provided Hitler with almost 50% of the iron he needed for his war machine), then join the Finnish resistance. Before Churchill could get his force under way, however, the Soviets overwhelmed the Finns in March 1940.

Still determined to intercept those shipments of Swedish iron ore flowing south from Narvik to Hitler, Churchill then worked out a plan to lay mines along the Norwegian coast and even to seize the main Norwegian ports. That was supposed to begin April 8, 1940, but Hitler learned of the plan. British troops were already embarked in Scotland when the news came that the Germans were moving to land in both Denmark and Norway.

The virtually unopposed conquest of Denmark took only a few hours. Casualties on both sides totaled 56. Norway offered somewhat more resistance. As a German naval task force steamed up the fjord leading to Oslo, the Oscarsborg Fort outside the capital opened fire with its turn-of-the-century German cannons and sank the heavy cruiser Blucher, killing more than 1,000 Germans. Among them were Gestapo agents under orders to seize King Haakon VII. Reprieved, the 67-year-old King fled northward on a railroad train, along with the national gold supply, 23 tons of it.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. 5
  7. 6
  8. 7
  9. 8
  10. 9
  11. 10
  12. 11