(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
On May 10, 1940 Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was awoken at 5:30 AM, and given reports that German troops were moving into Belguim and Holland. The “phony war” was over; Hitler’s invasion of the West had begun.
Later that day the BBC reported:
The first news of the German invasion reached London at dawn. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax received the Belgian Ambassador and Dutch Prime Minister at 0630 when they formally asked for Allied help. …That evening the King asked Churchill to become his Prime Minister.
In a proclamation issued to the German armies in the West, Hitler said: "The hour has come for the decisive battle for the future of the German nation."
Reports from Holland said German troops crossed the border during the night. The Dutch destroyed bridges over the Maas and Ijssel to prevent the German advance.
There were reports of fierce fighting at Rotterdam where German troops were landed by flying-boat. Other planes landed at Waalhaven aerodrome and troops quickly seized control.
This evening German forces are occupying the Maas and Bourse railway stations in Rotterdam. There are conflicting reports about whether they are still in possession of Waalhaven airport. …
British and French troops have moved across the Belgian frontier in response to appeals for reinforcements.
Reports from Belgium say British troops have been enthusiastically received. Their guns have been festooned with flowers and the soldiers plied with refreshments….
Looking back at that day and what followed, author and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham recently observed:
Churchill recalled … he felt as though he "were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." He added: "I was sure I should not fail."
His confident view of his own capacities was not widely shared in London or in Washington. Churchill was George VI's second choice (Lord Halifax, foreign secretary, high-church aristocrat and reliable Chamberlainite, had been the first)….
Yet it soon became clear, even in real time, that the 10th of May was a hinge of history.
It is neither sentimental nor simplistic to say that Churchill's ascension and refusal to surrender as he awaited America's entry into the war is one of the great achievements of this or any age.
Things were one way before Churchill became prime minister, and another way afterward.