How did Winston Churchill become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in World War Two

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Winston Churchill led a remarkable life, but perhaps the most remarkable element in his life was how he became prime minister in 1940. Just a few years earlier he was widely seen as politically isolated and was widely ridiculed for his views. Yet in 1940, he was appointed his nation’s Prime Minister at its darkest hours and became the leader of the fight against Nazi Germany. [1] The reasons for this remarkable, change of political fortune, was because of Churchill’s unstinting opposition to Nazi Germany and his abilities as a war leader, ultimately allowed him to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.


Winston Churchill- 1940

Winston Churchill was born into one of Britain’s leading political and aristocratic families. His father Randolph Churchill was one of the leading political figures of his time. [2] Churchill, from his youth, was a charismatic figure. He earned fame while still in his twenties, as a war journalist and for his exploits during the Boer War. Churchill joined the Conservative Party and eventually elected an M.P. During the First World War, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-15), in effect, he was in command of the British navy. Churchill was later forced to resign after the failure of the Gallipoli landings, in 1915. Churchill later served as an officer in the British army on the western front. After the war, he joined the British Liberal Party and was to serve as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was widely seen as making critical mistakes, that led to an economic downturn in Britain.[3] By the 1930’s he was in the political wilderness. However, he was a well-known figure in Britain and was genuinely popular. Churchill became famous for his journalism and his historical works. In 1935, he re-joined the ConservativeS, and sat as an M.P. in the House of Commons. [4] His fame rested on his magnificent use of the spoken and the written language.


Winston Churchill- 1940

Europe in the1930's, saw the rise of dictators in Europe, as democracies collapsed, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Hitler seized power in Germany and he immediately began to establish a dictatorship in Germany. He dismantled the provisions of the Versailles Treaty and contrary to its terms, he expanded the army and rapidly began to rebuilt the Germany arms industries.[5] Soon the German’s were acting in an aggressive manner, for example, they re-occupied the Rhineland. Churchill warned against this and he stated in fiery speeches that Hitler was a danger to peace in Europe. However, he was widely dismissed at this time. [6] The political elite in Britain at this time favoured a policy of appeasement, many believed that Germany had been too harshly treated under the Treaty of Versailles. The British governments of Baldwin and later Chamberlin, favoured, with the French the policy of appeasement. That was to allow German to reassert itself on the continent and to pursue its own interests. This policy of appeasement would mean that the Germans would not go to war. By the mid-1930s, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy were becoming increasingly belligerent. The Italians invaded Ethiopia and the Nazis occupied Austria.[7] Still the British and French governments did nothing. Churchill condemned the aggression of Italy and Germany and he deplored, what he saw as the weakness and cowardice of the British and French governments, in many speeches in the House of Commons and in newspaper articles.[8] He argued that their policy of appeasement was wrong and would only lead to a war and he called on them to stand up to Hitler before it was too late.In 1938, Germany demanded the return of the Sudetenland, a German-speaking area in Czechoslovakia to Germany. This almost led to a war. However, the British Prime Minister allowed the Germans to occupy the Sudetenland in exchange for German reassurances that they would seek no more territory in Europe, in the so-called Munich Agreement of 1938. [9] Within months, Hitler had broken the agreement and by 1939, it was widely expected that Europe would once again be plunged into war. Churchill, had predicted much of this and the British public recognized that their government’s had been wrong. [10] If Churchill had been heeded, then Hitler may have been stopped. Churchill was by now the most popular politician in Britain and many began to call for him to lead the country and many who had once derided him and his ideas now saw him a brilliant politician.

Outbreak of War

In September 1939, the German war machine invaded Poland and Europe was once more at war. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin declared war on Nazi Germany. The British adopted a cautious policy. The send the British Expeditionary Force to France and they and the French adopted a defensive posture and waited for a German attack. This was the period of the Phoney War, where the allies waited for Hitler’s next move.[11] Chamberlin knew that Churchill, was wildly popular, and he invited him to join the war cabinet and the First Lord of the Admiralty, on the day that Britain declared war on Germany. Churchill began to prepare the British navy for war against Germany. Many believed that Chamberlin invited Churchill to join the war cabinet to ensure that he did not cause problems for the government in the House of Commons. It proved to be a popular move and the public welcomed Churchill’s return to the cabinet, they saw him a leader, someone who could beat the Germans. Poland was defeated within weeks by Germany and after the Molotov-Rippentrop pact, Hitler could turn his attention to the western allies. Churchill wanted to adopt an aggressive approach and wanted the British and French to attack Germany and he proposed that the Allies occupy Norway, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans.[12] In the Spring of 1940, the German navy and army attacked Norway, even though it was a neutral nation. The country was of great strategic importance and it was the main source of Germany's iron ore. [13]

Battle of Norway

The Allies dispatched forces to Norway to help the Norwegian army to beat back the German invaders, but it was too late. The Germans had landed paratroopers in the country and rapidly reinforced these forces with several divisions of German infantry and they had easily defeated the Norwegian army. The French and the British arrived too late and in too few numbers.The Norwegian army regrouped in the north of the country, here they were joined by British and French forces. There were several fierce battles and the Allies out up a fierce resistance. The Allies and the Norwegian were forced to evacuate their units from the Norwegian port of Narvik, taking with them the king of Norway and his government. The ‘loss’ of Norway caused consternation in Britain and many feared that it could be used as a base to attack the British mainland. Once again Churchill had been proven right and if he had been heeded the allies could have held Norway. The public outcry over Norway meant that people had lost faith in the Conservative government and resulted in calls for the resignation of Neville Chamberlin.[14] Many Conservatives believed that it was time for a change, for the good of the country.

Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister May 1940

On May 10th, the Germans invaded western Europe.[15] They launched coordinated attacks on the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. London was in a panic and many believed that a German victory was inevitable. The British people demanded that a National Government, be put in place, comprising the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Party. It was believed that such were the dangers that only a National Government, as in World War I could save the country. It was widely believed that Lord Halifax would become prime minister, but he was unwilling. He had been too much associated with the appeasement policy of Europe and he had been even rumored to have favored seeking peace with the Germans. The public was overwhelmingly in favor Churchill, they saw him as someone who could lead their country to victory, however, many of the political elite believed that Churchill was too much of a maverick and was unpredictable. Perhaps crucially, in the appointment of Churchill was the reaction of the British armed forces. He was genuinely popular with the rank and file and the officers and was widely seen as someone who would fight the Germans.

National Hero

The Conservative government, under popular pressure, asked the other parties to form a National Government. However, when the Labour Party and Liberal Party voted to join the National Government, they stated that the preferred Churchill as leader.[16] This was mainly based on his long-term opposition to the Nazis. Churchill, because of his many years warning about the Nazis, was the only senior political figure with the moral authority and popularity to lead the nation. After all, parties agreed to for a National Government, the King then called for Churchill and ‘invited’ him to become Prime Minister. It was a popular choice in the country, the public wanted a war leader someone who would unite and inspire the country to victory. Churchill was to prove to be the leader that Britain and the free world needed. He knew that Britain prevented Europe and much of the world succumbing to Nazi Germany.

"Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands."[17] He promised the British victory and he would prove true to his promise. Immediately, he faced various crises as within weeks of his appointment, France and much of Western Europe was conquered by Germany. Churchill was to ignore all pleas to enter into peace negotiations with the Germans, believing that one could not reach an agreement with the Germans who were bent on world domination. He was to prove a brilliant war-leader and he inspired his country to victory in the Battle of Britain, that saved Britain from a Nazi invasion and occupation. The appointment of Winston Churchill in May 1940 probably saved Britain and ultimately laid the foundation for the Allied victory over the Nazis.


The appointment of Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister was a remarkable turn of events. He had long been in the political wilderness. However, his tireless opposition to the appeasement of Hitler and his great oratory and writings, made him hugely popular in Britain, despite, the British Establishment distrusting him. Ultimately, it was his history of long-term opposition to the Nazis and his never-say-die attitude that led to him becoming the leader of Britain, in its life-or-death struggle with Hitler.


  1. Hastings, Max. Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940–45. (London: Harper Press, 2009), p. 112.
  2. Hastings, p. 13
  3. Charmley, John (1993). Churchill, The End of Glory: A Political Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton p. 117
  4. Charmley, p. 117
  5. James, Robert Rhodes. Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900–1939(Harper Press, London, 1970), p. 134
  6. James, p. 211
  7. Hastings, p. 117
  8. The Times of London, 13 June 1936
  9. Hastings, p. 134
  10. Hastings, p. 119
  11. Hastings, p. 117
  12. Hastings, 211
  13. Hastings, p. 117
  14. Hastings, 213
  15. The Times of London, 11 May 1940
  16. The Times of London, 12 May 1940
  17. Winston Churchill. Historic Speeches, June 18, 1940.

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