Britain’s best news of 1939 came just three days after the start of war. The news was so good, the British Admiralty ordered it to be sent to every ship in the fleet. It came as just three simple words that were filled with hope: “Winston is back.”
The news confirmed the rumors that Winston Churchill had been brought back into the government as the First Lord of the Admiralty, the post he’d held in World War I. His return to government marked a hopeful change of direction. Great Britain had steadily been losing ground before Hitler. Now, with war declared, the country needed a tough and relentless fighter. And that was Winston.
It seems he had always been “Winston.” As journalist Vincent Sheehan wrote of the man, “Today, when he is 65, they still, duchesses and taxi drivers, call him ‘Winston,’ just as they did when he was 25.” (Read the entire article “Old Man in a Hurry- Winston Churchill” by Vincent Sheean from the October 21, 1939 issue of the Post.)
Winston’s name had been popping up for years in the Post, as well as its sister publication. As far back as November 23, 1899, The Country Gentleman ran a brief update on England’s war against the South Africans. A detachment of British soldiers. it said, had been sent to rescue the besieged garrison at Ladysmith:
“These troops unfortunately attempted to ride in an armored train, with disastrous consequences. Encountering a party of Boers north of Frère, they began to withdraw. While retiring, some of the trucks were derailed … a company of Dublin Fusiliers … turned out and advanced toward the enemy, while the rest of the train appears to have returned without them to Estcourt. It is believed that these men were taken prisoners, 100 in number, including Winston Churchill, son of Lord Randolph Churchill, who was acting as correspondent, but who assisted actively in the fighting.” (Of course he was in the fight; Churchill was forever looking for opportunities to distinguish himself.)
No one, including Winston himself, could have known that his capture was the beginning of a long, remarkable public career. After only a month in a Boer POW camp in Pretoria, he escaped and returned to British lines. At the time, the war had been going badly for Great Britain and Churchill’s escape made him a popular hero. It boosted his career as a correspondent and, shortly afterward, as a politician.
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By 1912, he was an experienced, successful, and highly confident politician. A Post editor described him as a man of “charming impudence,” though admitted his opponents viewed this quality as “insufferable insolence.”
“In his early days in politics he took none of the stodgy political pretensions of the older statesmen seriously, but flouted them, laughed at them, was insolent, impudent, satirical, sarcastic, by turns. He would break a lance with any of them, and had no reverence for age, reputation, or awe of convention and precedent.” (Read the entire article “Who’s Who- and Why” from the December 7, 1912 issue of the Post)
According to the author, Churchill lived in his own special world. “His sunsets are always more beautiful, his sunrises more glorious, his dangers more vivid, his pleasures more pronounced, than those of any other. As he looks at it, the sunset is his personal perquisite, and the sun always rises for his especial benefit.
“The only American to whom he can be compared,” the author continued, “is Theodore Roosevelt; and that comparison isn’t especially apt, for Churchill writes far better than Roosevelt does, talks far better, and at thirty-eight has gone farther than Roosevelt had when he reached that age. Of course Churchill never can be king, and Roosevelt has been president; but Churchill will undoubtedly be a Prime Minister of England one of these days.”
The Post’s prediction came true, but not for another 28 years. And for much of that time, there were many—Churchill included—who believed he had lost any hope of ever becoming Prime Minister.
Early in the 1930s, he had argued with his party about granting self-government for the British colony of India. Then, in 1936, he urged King Edward VIII not to resign in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. When he publicly stated that the government was pressuring Edward to abdicate, his party turned against him. He was banished from the inner circles and soon lost much of his public support.
His political exile, which lasted for years, proved to be a challenge similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s polio; it increased the man’s resiliency and determination. And during his years on the outside, he continually spoke out against appeasing Germany. He repeated that Hitler couldn’t be trusted, and that abandoning Czechoslovakia to the Germans would only delay war, not buy peace.
And by 1939, Sheehan, among others, was writing about the hero’s return:
“He returns to power at the clear demand of the British public—a public whose favor he has wooed for 40 years, but whose disfavor he has never been afraid to risk. … It is a strange turn of the irony of circumstance that Winston, who was for so many years ‘too clever to be trusted,’ is now the man whom the whole Empire trusts to preserve it. …
“At first, I, like most others who have come near him, was frankly afraid. His personality is an army with banners; your first impulse is to get out of his way. His slightest sentence has weight because the words seem chosen from an altogether exceptional arsenal of words with altogether exceptional care. He has a huge vocabulary and no hesitation in using it according to the dictates of his own instinct and experience. This sometimes means a flood of words, sometimes the merest laconic, summing up, but there is never a word thrown away, meaningless.
“In all these respects, as well as in the more important ones, ‘Winston’ stands in the sharpest contrast to his protagonist in this war, the fanatical, teetotaler, vegetarian, neurotic Adolf Hitler. One is a rounded man—in more senses than one—who enjoys life to the full and wishes to preserve its freedom and variety for his people; the other is a haunted shell of a creature who would immolate the whole universe, if need be, to his adolescent dreams of revenge and fulfillment.”
By this time, Churchill was already pushing the British government to take action in Scandinavia. He realized that Great Britain needed to secure the mines and ports in Norway and Sweden that supplied its iron, but Prime Minister Chamberlain hesitated and took no action until April 1940, after Hitler invaded Norway.
The following month Chamberlain resigned. Churchill became prime minister just as Hitler began his sweep across Europe, conquering France, Britain’s chief ally. By the month’s end, nearly a half million British soldiers were clinging precariously to the Belgian coast, surrounded by the German army. They were alone, outnumbered, and outgunned. But they had Winston.
Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago: