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28 Apr 2017
May 1940: Part 1

May 1940: Part 1

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As we enter a May Bank Holiday weekend and contemplate a looming General Election, it is perhaps fitting to reflect on the tumultuous events of another May — May 1940. It was in this month and in this year that Britain embarked on a military and political course that shaped the next five years.

The background to these events was the disastrous military intervention in Norway a month earlier — a misguided attempt to stem the tide of the Nazi invasion. The ‘Norway’ or ‘Narvik Debate’ began in the House of Commons on May, 7. It was as Roy Jenkins described: "by a clear head both the most dramatic and the most far-reaching in its consequences of any parliamentary debate of the twentieth century".

Over a dramatic few days, Parliament debated both the conduct of the War and Chamberlain’s leadership. Leo Amery made one of many notable speeches: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go".

At the end of the debate, the government survived a vote of no-confidence, but Chamberlain was fatally weakened. On May 10, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and Belgium, triggering his resignation. Churchill became Prime Minister, a coalition government was formed and on May 13, Churchill delivered his first speech to the House of Commons:

“I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering…

…You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”