When you consider how many gut-wrenching decisions British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to make during World War II — many of which involved sending young men to their deaths — the decision he called “the most difficult I had to make” must have been a doozy. And it was, but he made it this week (July 3) in 1940 without hesitation. He considered this decision crucial to the survival of the British Navy, which was crucial to the survival of Great Britain.
At the time, Britain’s ally France had just signed a surrender agreement with Nazi Germany that put Germany, whose army had overrun France a month earlier, in control of the country. Germany had permitted France to establish an “independent” government in the French town of Vichy under Henri Petain, but should push come to shove, Churchill doubted Petain or any member of the Vichy government would defy the Germans on any significant matter, which left Churchill with a problem. What was to become of France’s still-powerful navy, which had been unaffected by Germany’s defeat of France?
Churchill tried to persuade Vichy leaders to either order the French fleet to sit out the war in a neutral port, or deliberately scuttle the ships, or disarm them. His nightmare was that Germany would seize the French navy and use it against the British in the upcoming Battle of Britain.
For their part, Vichy leaders assured Churchill that they would never let Germany use their ships against Britain, but Churchill wasn’t convinced. “Do I trust my former allies and longtime friends, the French, to keep their word?” he must have wondered. “Or does the fact that they so readily capitulated to Nazi Germany and are now German puppets make them no longer trustworthy?”
Churchill decided he couldn’t take the risk. He ordered British Admiral James Somerville to sail to the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, where a large French fleet was stationed, and give the French six hours to either scuttle the fleet or capitulate, or the British Navy would destroy the fleet. When the deadline passed with no resolution, Britain’s navy opened fire, destroying the French fleet and killing some 1,500 French sailors.
In the aftermath, Churchill was roundly criticized in Britain and angrily denounced in France, but by his decision he had served notice to the world that here was a tough-minded leader who planned to save his country whatever the cost. And as it happened, one of those most impressed by Churchill’s decision was America’s president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had previously wondered whether Britain possessed the fortitude to stay the course against Germany.
Maybe, FDR mused, giving aid to Britain would not be a waste of time and money after all.
Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England.
From an early age, young Churchill displayed the traits of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a British statesman from an established English family, and his mother, Jeanette “Jennie” Jerome, an independent-minded New York socialite.
Churchill grew up in Dublin, Ireland, where his father was employed by his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, John Spencer-Churchill.
Churchill proved to be an independent and rebellious student; after performing poorly at his first two schools, Churchill in April 1888 began attending Harrow School, a boarding school near London. Within weeks of his enrollment, he joined the Harrow Rifle Corps, putting him on a path to a military career.
At first, it didn’t seem the military was a good choice for Churchill; it took him three tries to pass the exam for the British Royal Military College. However, once there, he fared well and graduated 20th in his class of 130.
Up to this time, his relationship with both his mother and father was distant, though he adored them both. While at school, Churchill wrote emotional letters to his mother, begging her to come see him, but she seldom came.
His father died when he was 21, and it was said that Churchill knew him more by reputation than by any close relationship they shared.
Churchill enjoyed a brief but eventful career in the British Army at a zenith of British military power. He joined the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars in 1895 and served in the Indian northwest frontier and the Sudan, where he saw action in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.
While in the Army, he wrote military reports for the Pioneer Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and two books on his experiences, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) and The River War (1899).
In 1899, Churchill left the Army and worked as a war correspondent for the Morning Post, a conservative daily newspaper. While reporting on the Boer War in South Africa, he was taken prisoner by the Boers during a scouting expedition.
He made headlines when he escaped, traveling almost 300 miles to Portuguese territory in Mozambique. Upon his return to Britain, he wrote about his experiences in the book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900).
On September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the war cabinet; by April 1940, he became chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee.
Later that month, Germany invaded and occupied Norway, a setback for Chamberlain, who had resisted Churchill’s proposal that Britain preempt German aggression by unilaterally occupying vital Norwegian iron mines and seaports.
From 1919 to 1922, Churchill served as minister of war and air and colonial secretary under Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Churchill was out of government. He was perceived as a right-wing extremist, out of touch with the people.
By 1938, as Germany began controlling its neighbors, Churchill had become a staunch critic of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward the Nazis.
On May 10, 1940, Chamberlain resigned and King George VI appointed Churchill as prime minister and minister of defense.
Within hours, the German army began its Western Offensive, invading the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Two days later, German forces entered France. As clouds of war darkened over Europe, Britain stood alone against the onslaught.
Churchill was to serve as prime minister of Great Britain from 1940 to 1945, leading the country through World War II until Germany’s surrender. He died died on January 24, 1965, at age 90, in his London home nine days after suffering a severe stroke. Britain mourned for more than a week. — Compiled from multiple sources