On May 13, 1940 – in Britain’s darkest hour – Winston Churchill first addressed the House of Commons as prime minister. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.
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Halfway down Whitehall there’s an equestrian statue of General Alexander Haig, the great British World War I military leader.
All the way down Whitehall – at Parliament Square – there’s a statue of Winston Churchill. Churchill’s standing there, looking across at Big Ben and the House of Commons. Standing there Almost glowering. Bulldog determined. He’s wearing the same navy greatcoat, buttoned-up against all weathers, literal and figurative, that he wore when he first set foot on the newly liberated D-Day beaches in Normandy.
Winston Churchill once said about General Haig, “He had often been wrong in the past. He was right in the end.”
Historian Paul Addison said about Winston Churchill, “at some point between May 1940 and the London blitz of September, the career of Winston Churchill merged into the history of the British people.”
Come May of 1940 what Churchill said about Haig was now applicable to Churchill himself. “He had often been wrong in the past. He was right in the end.”
On May 10th, 1940 Winston Churchill had been summoned to Buckingham Palace by King George VI. In the film the Darkest Hour the King says, “It is my duty to invite you to take up the position of prime minister of this United Kingdom.”
That’s the cinematic version.
Winston Churchill’s version was, “the king asked me if I knew why I’d been sent for. I said, ‘Sir, I simply couldn’t imagine why.’ He said, ‘I want to ask you to form a government.’ I said I would certainly do so.”
That moment annealed into Churchill’s deeply moving summation, “I felt that I was walking with destiny, and all my life had been but preparation for that hour.”
Just ahead, on Winston Churchill’s walk with destiny, was a military disaster.
All Winston Churchill had – all his people had – to get through many, many darkest hours and darkest days was what historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft calls Churchill’s capacity for willing the ends but not the means.
For taking the word for the deed.
Churchill once said, “I have always believed what I wanted to believe.”
What he now wanted to believe – and did believe – and was able to get his people to believe – was that England could survive against all the odds – survive against Hitler’s omnipotent Reich.
Speaking of those days when the cupboard was empty – those days when Britain was cornered, had its back to the wall – The great American journalist, Edward R Murrow said, “Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”
Like General Haig, Winston Churchill had been wrong before. But he was right in the end.
In the past Churchill had uttered foolish words of praise, of admiration, for Adolph Hitler. But cometh the hour, he understood like no one else did – understood intuitively that his, Hitler’s, National Socialist regime was “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime.” And that its triumph would mean “a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science.”
He understood that Hitler had to be defeated. That Britain had no choice but to be victorious. That Britain must somehow do the impossible – be victorious, stop Hitler and utterly defeat him.
Understood That Britain must take the word for the deed and that somehow – by some alchemy of courage and determination – by willing the end – victory – at a time when there was no means at all of achieving it – he and his people would somehow get there, would achieve it. That blood, toil, tears and sweat – all he could offer the British people – would win through in the end. He was right.
And that brings us to this day, May 13th, 1940. Winston Churchill’s first speech – as Prime Minister – to the House of Commons. Here’s a taster… [excerpt from the speech read out here].
That was May 13th, 1940. That was Today in London History. For Today in London – the London Walks recommendation – has to be either the Old Westminster Walk or the Westminster at War Walk.
Finally, Winston Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister coming on the 13th, I think we better do some numerology. Given the you-know-what that clings to the number 13.
You’ll be pleased to hear – and it’s so fitting, this – there’s a rival tradition that 13 is an extremely lucky number. The tale goes that Pope Gregory – who reigned 1500 years ago – was in the habit of giving breakfast to 12 of Rome’s poor each morning. One morning, Jesus appeared in the guise of a beggar, making the number at the breakfast table up to 13, and given that development, well, what was 13 but the luckiest number of all.
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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.