Churchill becomes Prime Minister as Hitler attacks

Winston Churchill: invited to become Prime Minister on 10th May 1940

From September 1939 to April 1940 the world had held its breath as the ‘Phoney War’ unfolded. Poland had been subjugated by Hitler and Britain and France, which had both gone to war over the German invasion, had been able to offer negligible assistance. Then, in April, Hitler had invaded Denmark and Norway – and attempts by Britain and France to provide military assistance, when they lacked any significant air power in the region, had proved to be weak and ineffective.

In Britain these developments brought to a head criticism of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose past track record of appeasing Hitler offered little comfort to many in the country when the war was hotting up. In the British Parliament the ‘Norway Debate’ was as much about Chamberlain’s position as it was about the conduct of the campaign in Norway.

Neville Chamberlain was severely criticised in the debate and only won the vote because many Conservative MPs had abstained.

Churchill had ended his speech in the Norway Debate with the words:

… let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let party interest be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let all the strong horses be pulling on the collar.

Chamberlain concluded that he would have to resign, even though he had won the vote. He recognised the need to allow a new Prime Minister to form a National Government, in which all the political Parties would be represented.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax was a strong contender but he ruled himself out because he sat in the Lords and it would be difficult to lead the Commons from there. He probably recognised that he was himself too closely associated with Chamberlain’s policies. The Labour Party leadership intimated to Chamberlain that they were only prepared to serve under Churchill.

The matter was effectively decided by the afternoon of the 9th May. However it depended upon the Labour Party formally agreeing that they would serve under Churchill in a coalition government of national unity. Despite the events of the early hours of the morning in Europe, on the 10th May the most senior figures in the Labour Party took the 11.34am train from Waterloo station out of London. They travelled to Bournemouth on the south coast, where they were about to begin their Party Conference. They stuck rigidly to their procedural rules.

It was not until 5pm that the Labour Leader telegrammed London to say that they would serve under Churchill. Chamberlain immediately went to too see the King and ‘offered’ his resignation. The King then called for Churchill and ‘invited’ him to become Prime Minister. He did not formally assume the role until 6pm.

It was a popular choice in the country, where Churchill’s brilliant oratory resonated, but opinion was sharply divided amongst the political classes, where many thought him too much of a maverick to be a successful leader.

So it was that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on one of the most fateful days in history.

Aerial view of Rotterdam bombed, May 1940

Aerial view of Rotterdam bombed, May 10th 1940

Hitler had launched Fall Gelb, Operation Yellow in the early hours of the 10th. His order to the German armed forces declared:

The hour has come for the decisive battle for the future of the German nation. For three hundred years the rulers of England and France have made it their aim to prevent any real consolidation of Europe and above all to keep Germany weak and helpless. With this your hour has come. The fight which begins today will decide the destiny of the German people for a thousand years. Now do your duty.

German paratroopers had begun landing in Holland and Belgium at 3.30am, taking a number of key defensive positions by surprise.

German Ju-52 troop transport planes at Rotterdam Airport

Rotterdam Airport on fire, 10th May 1940, German Ju-52 troop transport planes, which have just landed are in front.

Dirk Van Der Heide was then 12 years old, living in Rotterdam:

Rotterdam: Friday, 10 May

Something terrible happened last night. War began!!! Uncle Pieter was right. The city has been bombed all day. … At first most people thought the noise was only practice. All the time people kept running outside and coming back with news. It was war all right and the radio was giving the alarm and calling all the time for all men in the reserves to report for duty at the nearest place. The radio said this over and over. It was very exciting.

The bombing kept on all the time, boom-boom-boom, and everyone said they were falling on Waalhaven, the airport, which is only about five miles away. The Baron went upstairs and began telephoning. The voices on the radio sounded strange and terribly excited. Father put Keetje into Mother’s arms and went away. A few minutes later he came back dressed and carrying a gas mask and a knapsack. He kissed Mother and Keetje and me very hard and then hurried out. He shouted something about taking care of his animals and Mother nodded and told him to be careful, please.

His mother would die in the bombing of Rotterdam that followed, see Dirk van der Heide: My Sister and I. For much more on the invasion of Holland, including a huge gallery of images see War Over Holland.

German troops wait to cross the Maas

Dutch schemes to blow up bridges to halt the German advance were ineffective; German troops waiting to cross the River Maas in the afternoon of 10th May.

Crossing the Maas by boat

Another view: crossing the Maas by boat

The greater part of the direct French-German border was protected by the heavily fortified Maginot line, so the French had anticipated that the Germans would attack France through the ‘Low Countries'; Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. In this event the French plan called for the Allies to move forward into Belgium and meet the advancing Germans there. The Belgium position of strict neutrality (intended to deny the Germans any claim of ‘provocation’) did not help in preparing for such a move. However Gamelin, the French commander believed that the Allies could take over Belgium prepared fortified positions.

A Light Dragon Mk III artillery tractor towing a 25-pdr field gun and limber in Herseaux, as the BEF crosses the border into Belgium, 10 May 1940.

A Light Dragon Mk III artillery tractor towing a 25-pdr field gun and limber in Herseaux, as the BEF crosses the border into Belgium, 10 May 1940.

The ‘D plan’ now called for the majority of the British Expeditionary Force to move forward into Belgium and create a new defensive line on the River Dyle. The daily experiences of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders provide a representative example of the movements of many in the British Army:

Friday 10th May.

Renton woke me at the usual time 7.30 am. with the news that Germany had invaded Holland and Belgium early this morning

We did not leave Haut Hameau until just before midnight. This afternoon there was a great deal of air activity, we saw several fights and heavy enemy bombing this evening in the Nomain area. Appeared to be incendiary bombs, and myself and C.S.M. Maclean went up past M.Lejeuse’s house to watch the fire.

Battalion assembled at road junction Dornock and main Rumecies Road about midnight and marched off an hour later. Maurice [Major M. Wilson] was commanding. Peter also present.

Very sorry to leave M. and Mme Picquet. Had been very comfortably billeted here. They sat up till I left. We listened to the wireless news and had coffee and I brandy. Saw a very good air fight at 9 p.m. and plane came down in flames over Planard, pilot following in a parachute.

See TNA WO 217/15

The 10th May deserves to be regarded as the European “Day of Infamy”, involving surprise attacks on three neutral nations, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Nevertheless it did not wholly go Hitler’s way, particularly in the air. On this single day 519 aircraft were shot down, most of them German, a world record for aircraft downed in a single day. The Dutch Airwar Studygroup 1939-1945 maintains a database with details of every aircraft and the fate of the crew, where known. For more Dutch war news see Arthur Graaff’s NIEUWS WO2.

Fairey Battles of No. 226 Squadron RAF undergoing servicing on the flight line at Reims-Champagne. The aircraft on the right, K9183 'MQ-R', was shot down by ground aircraft fire while attacking enemy columns south-west of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. Its pilot died of his wounds, but the other two crew members survived.

Fairey Battles of No. 226 Squadron RAF undergoing servicing on the flight line at Reims-Champagne. The aircraft on the right, K9183 ‘MQ-R’, was shot down by ground aircraft fire while attacking enemy columns south-west of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940. Its pilot died of his wounds, but the other two crew members survived.

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