(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
On May 10,1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. The news of his appointment by the King was broadcast to the nation by his predecessor, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
On May 13, Churchill spoke in the House of Commons and delivered his now immortal "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech. But the nation only read about the speech.
In the 1940s there was no live broadcasts of parliament’s proceedings. Churchill's May 13 speech, like a number of other speeches he delivered in Commons, was recorded later for rebroadcast and posterity.
Churchill's first speech to the nation as Prime Minister did not occur until Sunday evening, May 19.
On that night Britain's situation was even more desperate than it had been on May 10. The battle in France was not going well. The Germans were simultaneously driving toward the Marne and Paris and pushing the Allies back toward the Channel Coast. It looked very possible that the Germans would cut the Allies defensive line in two, effectively trapping the Allies left flank against the coast.
I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our empire, of our allies, and, above all, of the cause of Freedom.Churchill's biographer, Martin Gilbert, later wrote:
A tremendous battle is raging in France and Flanders. The Germans, by a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armored tanks, have broken through the French defenses north of the Maginot Line, and strong columns of their armored vehicles are ravaging the open country, which for the first day or two was without defenders.
They have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track. Behind them there are now appearing infantry in lorries, and behind them, again, the large masses are moving forward. [...]
Our task is not only to win the battle - but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island -- for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle.
In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable. The interests of property, the hours of labor, are nothing compared with the struggle of life and honor, for right and freedom, to which we have vowed ourselves. [...]
Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: "Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be."
Churchill's first broadcast as Prime Minister caught the imagination of the millions. It was his first attempt as Prime Minister to point the way through setbacks and disasters to the ultimate, essential victory.