Churchill and the King
The Wartime Alliance of Winston Churchill and George VI
For fans of The King's Speech, the intriguing bond between monarch and prime minister and its crucial role during World War II
The political and personal relationship between King George VI and Winston Churchill during World War II is one that has been largely overlooked throughout history, yet the trust and loyalty these men shared helped Britain navigate its perhaps most trying time.
Despite their vast differences, the two men met weekly and found that their divergent virtues made them a powerful duo. The king’s shy nature was offset by Churchill’s willingness to cast himself as the nation’s savior. Meanwhile, Churchill’s complicated political past was given credibility by the king’s embrace and counsel. Together as foils, confidants, conspirators, and comrades, the duo guided Britain through war while reinspiring hope in the monarchy, Parliament, and the nation itself.
Books about these men as individuals could fill a library, but Kenneth Weisbrode’s study of the unique bond between them is the first of its kind.
Neville Chamberlain had taken far too long, some said, to admit failure. So they gave him a hard push. Britain’s prime minister imagined that he had appeased Hitler. He may have deterred him, but only for a brief time. He did
not dissuade, disarm, or destroy him. Hitler took the Sudetenland and dismembered Czechoslovakia; he had conquered his piece of Poland and allowed Stalin to grab the rest; he had invaded Denmark and Norway, “fascinated, browbeaten, cajoled and then garotted.” The way was open to France, and everyone, or nearly everyone, knew it. In May 1940, Europe was again at war. And in Britain, Chamberlain got the blame.
The king was worried. He had seen his father age terribly dur‑ ing the last war and had served in it himself. He may have had “boundless confidence” in his prime minister, but Chamberlain had failed. “Resign—Resign,” the members of Parliament shouted amid stanzas of “Rule Britannia.” The burden of choosing a successor fell to them and, ultimately, to the British people. But the formal responsibility rested with the king, for the king is the only one who
can ask a prime minister to form a government.
The most likely candidate to replace him was Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary. “The Holy Fox,” as Churchill had named him, was a tall, trim, elegant Yorkshireman and a former viceroy of India, whose “long figure curled like a question mark.” He was at once skeptical and imaginative—a man, it was said, who “could see at least three more facets to any diamond than the jewelers who cut it had placed there.” One of the few sympathetic qualities of this “high priest of the Respectable Tendency,” perhaps, was his possession, like the king, of a speech impediment that was said to resemble “a slight lisp.” He was also missing a hand.
Halifax was a man after the king’s heart: aristocratic in style and spirit, resilient, stately, shrewd, cautious, principled, practical, courteous, attentive, and, probably above all else, “insinuating, but unlovable.” He was, therefore, a reliable figure, not at all like the unpredictable Churchill, whom Chamberlain regarded as a “d——d uncomfortable bed fellow.” The king trusted Halifax and was said to be “far closer to him than to any other senior politician of the day.” His wife was a lady‑in‑waiting to the queen, and it had been he who had convinced the king, ultimately, that the policy of appease‑ ment had been misguided.
But Halifax did not want the job and made a strong case for why he should not have it. He was already a member of the House of Lords; prime ministers generally came from the Commons. As foreign secretary he was associated in the popular mind with Chamberlain, whereas Churchill, though he had been serving until now as First Lord of the Admiralty, had been the prime minister’s loudest critic. Halifax suggested a government of national unity
with members of each major party, but not with himself as head.
According to him, Chamberlain
thought that it was clearly Winston, or myself, and appeared to suggest that if it were myself he might continue to serve in the Government. I put all the arguments that I could think of against myself, laying a considerable emphasis on the difficult position of a Prime Minister unable to make contact with the centre of gravity in the House of Commons. The P.M. did not think so much of this . . . and my stomach ache continued. I then said . . . that I had no doubt at all in my own mind that for me to take it would create a quite impossible position.
Therefore, it would be hopeless. . . . If I was not in charge of the war (operations) and if I didn’t lead in the House, I should be a cypher. I thought Winston was a better choice.
A new government would also need the support of the leaders of the Labour Party, which either man probably could have got, but not under Chamberlain.
The three met together at Downing Street. Chamberlain’s “demeanour was cool, unruffled and seemingly quite detached from the personal aspect of the affair.”
“Can you see any reason, Winston, why in these days a Peer should not be Prime Minister?”
Churchill “saw a trap in this question.” His friend and fixer, Brendan Bracken, had warned him the previous night to expect it.
“It would be difficult to say yes without saying frankly that he
thought he himself should be the choice. If he said no, or hedged, he felt sure that Mr. Chamberlain would turn to Lord Halifax and say,
‘Well, since Winston agrees I am sure that if the King asks me I should suggest his sending for you.’ ” Churchill said that Chamber‑ lain probably wanted him to serve as Halifax’s deputy and he was open to the possibility. “You cannot agree to this,” Bracken said.
“Winston was obdurate; he said that he could not go back on his word.” So Bracken told him to keep quiet.
“Promise?” He did.
Churchill stared out the window and said nothing. “I have had many important interviews in my public life and this was certainly the most important,” he later wrote. “Usually I talk a great deal, but on this occasion I was silent. . . . As I remained silent, a very long pause ensued.” Halifax proposed that Chamberlain should nominate Churchill to succeed him. Churchill finally spoke and said he would take no political steps until he heard from the king. His son, Randolph, later modified the story:
It was quite true that Winston had been advised to keep quiet when he went with Halifax to see Chamberlain. It was also true that Chamberlain wanted Halifax and said that Halifax would be more acceptable to Labour and to the Liberals. It was also true that Halifax had said that he would not be captain of his own ship with Winston on board. W.S.C. had then spoken and said: “I am sure you wouldn’t.” Chamberlain had then suggested further discussion with the Labour Party. Winston had replied that he would have nothing to do with further discussions. If the King sent for him, he would form a
government whether Labour came in or not.
Thus did Churchill emerge as the new leader.
The king had been feeling unhappy. His thoughts were said to be charitable, even sympathetic, toward Chamberlain, and he regret‑ ted the attacks on him. He was worried about the Labour Party leaders. He asked, “Would they serve in the Nat. Govt. with N. Chamberlain as P.M.? They said no. Would they serve in the Nat. Govt. with anybody else as P.M.?”
For his part, Churchill did “not remember exactly how things happened” but that he became aware that “I might well be called upon to take the lead.” He remembered being “content to let events unfold. . . . It was a bright, sunny afternoon, and Lord Halifax and I sat for a while on a seat in the garden of Number 10 and talked about nothing in particular.”
On the next day, May 10, the news came that Hitler’s armies had invaded Holland and Belgium. Churchill treated himself to a
4:00 a.m. breakfast of fried eggs and bacon, and a cigar. Later he discussed with the War Cabinet the effect of the previous night’s attacks. Halifax had gone to the dentist. Chamberlain then went to the palace. The king
accepted his resignation, & told him how grossly unfai[r] I thought he had been treated, & that I was terribly sorry that all this controversy had happened. We then had an informal talk over his successor. I, of course, suggested Halifax, but he told me that H. was not enthusiastic, as being in the Lords he could only act as a shadow o[r] a ghost in the Commons. I was
disappointed over this statement, as I thought H. was the obvious man, & that his peerage could be placed in abeyance for the time being. Then I knew that there was only one per‑ son I could send for to form a Government who had the confidence of the country, & that was Winston. I asked Chamberlain his advice, & he told me Winston was the man to send for.
So he did. When Churchill arrived at the palace that evening, he
was taken immediately to the King. His Majesty received me most graciously and bade me sit down. He looked at me searchingly and quizzically for some moments, and then said: “I suppose you don’t know why I have sent for you?” Adopting his mood, I replied: “Sir, I simply couldn’t imagine why.” He laughed and said: “I want to ask you to form a Government.” I said I would certainly do so.
Churchill rode from the palace “in complete silence.” Arriv‑ ing back at the Admiralty, he remarked to his detective, W. H. Thompson:
“You know why I have been to Buckingham Palace, Thompson?” “Yes, sir . . .” Thompson saw tears.
“God alone knows how great it is,” Churchill said. “I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.” Then he “muttered something to himself ” and strode up the stairs, “with a look of determination, mastering all emotion.”
It has been said that insouciance is the elixir of power. It is dif‑
ficult to imagine Churchill or the king drinking in excess from that cup. Neither man was all‑powerful politically: one was head of government, the other head of state. Neither was a Roosevelt nor a Stalin. But “[t]ogether”—to borrow a description once applied to Churchill and his amanuensis, Eddie Marsh—“this strangely assorted pair, the bulldog and the sparrow, plunged into the tur‑ moil of politics without a moment’s delay.”
The question remains whether the extroverted and introverted elements of their character were inherently complementary; that is, whether each man strove consciously to work with the other so as to make an amalgam. They certainly warmed to each other. But the prospect of an alliance was not self‑evident, at least not initially. It was fortunate that getting on, even developing a mutual affection, may have proved less difficult than either man had imagined, if they had even thought about it so directly. Somehow they made it work.
Halifax had been magnificently right. For Halifax was insouciant, in or out of power. He was practically a member of the king’s family; the two spoke each other’s language and had dealt familiarly for a long time. Halifax would have had no trouble working with him. Chamberlain’s rationale for not having recommended him to the king remains unresolved. He had said to Halifax “that he had always thought he [Chamberlain] could not face the job of being prime minister in war, but when it came he did; and yet now that the war was becoming intense he could not but feel relieved that the final responsibility was off him.” Perhaps he thought he was doing Halifax a favor. Halifax in turn must not have felt the need to place so much importance on reordering his mind and his
relations for that purpose, as Churchill later did. Familiarity and trust were already in place. Churchill, on the other hand, had to earn them.
Churchill had been the most stalwart, most eloquent, and most determined opponent of the policy of appeasement. He had a check‑ ered political past and an even more checkered reputation for a life once described “as a set‑piece contest between curriculum vitae and genius.” He had served and abandoned both major political parties and had seen his career rise and fall repeatedly for nearly half a century. He had held every major cabinet post bar that of for‑ eign secretary and prime minister, and not by accident. Some of his contemporaries abhorred the idea of his assuming office, but to his and his country’s credit, Halifax recognized that Churchill, not he, was the man it needed. Only Churchill could have formed a national government to rally the nation in war. Only he could have waged it.
So he did. But he did not lead on his own; no leader does. There is an easy tendency to promote the identity of Winston Churchill as a solitary bulwark: as Britain stood alone in the darkest hours of
1940, so did Churchill. But at his side were his aides and lieutenants, his so‑called Secret Circle of favorites, his parliamentary allies, and his loyal wife and family. Most of these people, however, were followers or courtiers. There was only one other man who stood with Churchill at the helm, from the very beginning, and he was the king. “Ministers come and go, but the King remains, always at the centre of public affairs, always participating vigilantly in the work of government from a standpoint detached from any consideration but the welfare of his peoples as a whole,” an editorial
in the Times put it in May 1943 after the victories in North Africa. “He is the continuous element in the constitution, one of the main safe‑guards of its democratic character, and the repository of a knowledge of affairs that before long comes to transcend that of any individual statesman.”
But the war caught the king unready and, apparently, unproven. In the spring of 1940, few could have predicted the calamity that was about to befall Britain. Even Churchill, for all that he had warned of it, could not have known the extent of the defeat and destruction that would come in the next few months.
“In times of danger,” wrote a contemporary observer, “democratic leadership is gained, not by the gun and rubber truncheon, but by great ability, the reputation for courage in vicissitude, stamina, and fighting spirit.” Churchill reached the pinnacle of British politics at last. Would another, younger prime minister have been better for the forty‑five‑year‑old king? That was certainly possible. Would a different monarch have made Churchill’s life comparably worse, pushing him harder to justify and explain every strategic decision, or, alternatively, much easier, by letting him do his job without interference? Also quite possible. “George VI was not a born leader,” his father’s biographer, Kenneth Rose, has written. “He could seem shy and harassed, aloof and even morose. Yet when put to the test of war he displayed nobler qualities: resolution and dignity and the chivalry of an earlier age.” He, too, gained.
It is not easy to imagine either of the Edwards, VII or VIII, George V, or even Queen Victoria, for that matter—despite the interest she took in some matters of government— being granted so much direct involvement, and with no objection. This monarch had it, thanks to Churchill. The two were the better for it. So was Britain.
Who were they? Before anything can be understood of their individual or combined nature, something more must be said about their origins.
“An organic comparison of two highly flawed and deeply sympathetic characters at the helm of England at her most perilous hour. . . .Weisbrode makes a very compelling case that each man was ‘working against his own faults, on behalf of the other.’ An inspired, engaging comparative portrait.”
“Historian Weisbrode shares the story of how two of the most important figures in 20th-century Britain, Churchill and King George VI, worked tirelessly to maintain British interests throughout WWII. . . The friendship that grew between these two historical figures makes for an uplifting story.”
“Churchill and the King is a thoughtful, deeply insightful account of two unconventional friends -- the shy, stammering George VI and the flamboyant Winston Churchill -- who, after triumphing over their own personal adversities, join forces to rally their countrymen and inspire the world in the dark days of World War II. "
—Lynne Olson , author of Citizens of London, Troublesome Young Men, and Those Angry Days
“Weisbrode’s excellent book on Churchill’s relationship with King George VI is very well done and will take an honoured place on my Churchill shelf.”
—Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times and Churchill
“One of the last unexplored relationships of World War Two is that between Winston Churchill and the only person who could have sacked him during that conflict, King George VI. They had very different personalities and views on politics, but their country needed them to work in perfect tandem. As Kenneth Weisbrode writes, ‘Somehow they made it work,’ and in this well-researched and well-written book, he shows how what began as a professional necessity turned into a genuine friendship, and eventually one of the best working relationships of either man’s life.”
—Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War and Masters and Commanders
“The shy, stammering King and the loquacious, domineering Prime Minister were an odd couple--but they gave each other courage and confidence when England stood alone. Ken Weisbrode has written an elegant and perceptive study of friendship in power.”
—Evan Thomas, author of Ike's Bluff and Sea of Thunder
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