Churchill wins Vote of Confidence in the Commons

Winston Churchill, in the uniform of an Air Commodore, with Dr H V Evatt (Australian Minister for External Affairs), Clement Attlee (Deputy Prime Minister) and Air Vice-Marshal C R Carr (AOC No 4 Group) during a visit to a Yorkshire-based Halifax squadron on 15 May 1942

1942 had been a year of disappointments so far. The the retreat in the face of the Japanese assault and the fall of Singapore had been the worst shock. The most recent fall of Tobruk seemed to show that the British were in retreat everywhere. Only the bombing of Germany and the occasional Commando raid gave any cause for feeling that the British were fighting back. Churchill had always had plenty of critics, the country was not nearly as united behind him as the propaganda seemed to suggest. In Parliament a disgruntled minority of MPs put forward a motion of no confidence:

That this House, while paying tribute to the heroism and endurance of the Armed Forces of the Crown in circumstances of exceptional difficulty, has no confidence in the central direction of the war

Churchill had survived a similar vote in January, now there were a few more people lined up against him. The argument was that Churchill should not be both Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, or that he should be clearly delegating the responsibly for running the war to a senior Military figure. Churchill was characteristically candid and eloquent in his own defence:

I cannot tell the House — and the enemy — what reinforcements are at hand, or are approaching, or when they will arrive. I have never made any predictions except things like saying that Singapore would hold out. What a fool and a knave I should have been to say that it would fall. I have not made any arrogant, confident, boasting predictions at all. On the contrary, I have stuck hard to my blood, toil, tears and sweat, to which I have added muddle and mismanagement, and that, to some extent I must admit, is what you have got out of it.

He went on to summarise the current position:

I now ask the House to take a wider survey. Since Japan attacked us six months ago in the Far East we have suffered heavy losses there. A peace-loving nation like the United States, confined by two great oceans, naturally takes time to bring its gigantic forces to bear.

I have never shared the view that this would be a short war, or that it would end in 1942. It is far more likely to be a long war. There is no reason to suppose that the war will stop when the final result has become obvious. The Battle of Gettysburg proclaimed the ultimate victory of the North, but far more blood was shed after the Battle of Gettysburg than before.

At the same time, in spite of our losses in Asia, in spite of our defeats in Libya, in spite of the increased sinkings off the American coast, I affirm with confidence that the general strength and prospects of the United Nations have greatly improved since the turn of the year, when I last visited the President in the United States.

The outstanding feature is of course the steady resistance of Russia to the invaders of her soil, and the fact that up to now at the beginning of July, more than halfway through the summer, no major offensive has been opened by Hitler upon Russia, unless he calls the present attacks on Kharkov and Kursk a major offensive.

There is no doubt that the Russian Government and nation, wedded by the ties of blood, sacrifice and faith to the English speaking democracies of the West, will continue to wage war, steadfast, stubborn, invincible. I make no forecast of the future. All I know is that the Russians have surprised Hitler before and I believe they will surprise him again. Anyhow whatever happens they will fight on to death or victory. This is the cardinal fact at this time.

In the end Churchill won the debate by 475 votes to 25. It was a fine example of democracy in action even as the nation continued to face mortal threats.

The whole speech – and the whole debate – can be read at Hansard.

The 8th Army was now falling back to a new defence line in Egypt, which was being augmented with minefields.
South African engineers preparing mines for laying, Egypt, 2 July 1942.

A South African sapper removing anti-personnel mines from protective containers, Egypt, 2 July 1942.

A South African sapper carrying a stack of mines, Egypt, 2 July 1942.

A South African sapper laying a mine, Egypt, 2 July 1942.

A South African sapper laying a mine, Egypt, 2 July 1942.

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