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Saturday, May 27, 2023
Dr. Brown: Very busy day launched a career that changed the world

Sometimes we are so busy we barely have time to think.

Here’s what one very busy day looked like – then guess who and when: Breakfast at 5 a.m. with fried eggs and bacon. followed by a 6 a.m. meeting with the ministers of war, a 7 a.m. meeting with the military co-ordination committee, an 8 a.m. meeting of the war cabinet with the prime minister followed by sundry meetings with ministers and others between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., a second meeting with the cabinet and PM at 11:30 a.m., followed by a non-stop series of meetings with various ministers and advisers, a third war cabinet meeting at 4:30 p.m., an early evening meeting with the King and thereafter a series of consultations with members of the cabinet and the opposition Labour party to form a unity war cabinet before finally going to bed at 3 a.m.

Many of you might guess from the urgency and frequency of the meetings that there was a crisis brewing which threatened the country and you would be right. The central figure was, of course, Winston Churchill, who at the start of the day, was first lord of the admiralty and by early evening had become PM with the grudging support of many in his own Conservative party.

The King preferred Lord Halifax but with Halifax’s reluctance to take on the job, it fell to Churchill.

It was May 10, 1940. Germany was busy bombing France and Belgium, and had just invaded Belgium and northern France. The “phoney war” was over, the blitzkrieg of western Europe had begun. In a few weeks it led to the collapse and surrender of France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark and, along the way, the rescue of a few hundred thousand British and French troops at Dunkirk. Those were dark days.

There were many who thought the situation was hopeless and Britain should negotiate for peace with Germany, something Hitler favoured, according to the records at the time, given that his primary target was the East and Russia.

The pace of that May 10 day was frantic – we can only imagine what ministers said to one another in private. Certainly Churchill wasn’t their first choice and many who assented to Churchill as PM thought and hoped he would be a temporary fill-in until someone sounder could be found.

Churchill was 65 then, an age when many these days retire, and 70 when Germany and Japan surrendered unconditionally in 1945. In 1940, many considered Churchill a risky, even dangerous choice as PM and well past his time, especially by his Conservative party who saw him as a turncoat from the days when he crossed the floor to become a Liberal, a grandstander and a trouble-maker throughout much of the 1930s.

In the air, the Battle of Britain was about to begin, the war in the Atlantic would run on for three years before the horrendous losses in material and men began to slacken, and the next two years was a litany of defeats in western Europe, Greece, Crete, North Africa and Southeast Asia.

Despite his age, in those early years of the war, Churchill was day in and day out, more than up to the job. He was a demanding, sometimes exasperating, and heartless taskmaster. And he made some big mistakes, but never on the big-ticket items, like the Atlantic alliance, which he got right and invested with all the time, energy and schmoozing of Roosevelt he could muster.

But by late 1943, Churchill was visibly tiring and beginning to lose his emotional and cognitive grip. That was certainly the case if you pay attention to his generals, especially Field Marshal Allan Brooke, with whom Churchill had many battles.

During the war, Churchill probably suffered from several heart attacks and possibly at least one small ischemic stroke, which these days might have been dealt with effectively, although getting Churchill to take medical advice was never easy.

As American influence grew, his influence over the course of world events waned. Even so, Churchill managed with the help of many others to write a highly personal, readable six-volume history of the war (especially his part in it), as well as a masterful history of the British people.

For those writings and his wartime speeches, he won the 1953 Nobel Prize in literature, cited for “his mastery of historical and biographical description, as well as his brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

By the time he returned as PM in 1951 at the age of 76 and for the next four years, it was obvious that he was very much a caretaker PM. Finally, he stepped down, persuaded by Anthony Eden and other colleagues, and especially his wife Clementine, probably the only person he really listened to.

It was a life well-lived, even though he made some big mistakes including the management of India during the war. He was a creature of his time and culture and reluctant to see the empire go.

But then, many of us are trapped by our past and because of that probably shouldn’t take on jobs that will shape the future long after we are past. Whatever his faults and mistakes, he was the right man, in the right place and time when his country most needed him.

Not a bad first day, which launched a tumultuous prime ministership at 65.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library. 

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