In the same way that he dominated the war years, Churchill’s history of the Second World War has shaped the way that British histories of the war have been written ever since. His volume dealing with 1940 is entitled ‘Their Finest Hour’, and it is surely a year about which there is most legend, nostalgia and myth in Britain. This chapter will examine some of those legends.
Churchill’s standing was strong at the beginning of the year. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he represented Britain’s only worldclass service, and the only one that was actively engaged during the so-called ‘Phoney War’. News of the navy’s victory at the Battle of the River Plate, with the sinking of the German battleship Graf Spee in December 1939, had raised his profile with the public. This was followed by another success: a daring rescue of nearly three hundred British prisoners-of-war from the German ship Altmark. Churchill took great care to announce these successes personally and so became associated with news of military victory. Chamberlain suffered in comparison. He had declared war very reluctantly and his leadership during the first few months was lacklustre. Moreover, the only member of his Cabinet with any charisma was Churchill. Many of his colleagues were political nonentities. Chamberlain’s leadership and regime were ripe, then, to be challenged. But the challenge did not come from Churchill.