May 10, 2013
Dateline: Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.
Yes, Sir Winston Churchill was here, too. He actually came to see the Falls at least twice, in 1900 as a rising journalist, and again in 1943, when he was Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. On that latter occasion, he was prodded by pesky reporters who wanted to know if he’d ever seen the Falls before and what he thought of them.
“I have seen them before, before you were born,” he ribbed the self-important young journos, “and I see the principle remains the same.”
The reason everyone wanted to know what Churchill thought is because of what happened on this day – May 10, 1940. It was on that day when, despite all odds, Churchill became Prime Minister of an embattled Great Britain.
On this day, too, Adolph Hitler ended the phony war in the West that many had taken to calling a “Sitzkrieg.” Hitler had left Berlin in the early hours of May 10th. He rode over velvet-smooth tracks in his private train, oddly named “Amerika.” He wanted to be there for the jumping off of his powerful army, his Wehrmacht.
Within weeks of this date, France would collapse. The French army, which had borne the brunt of German wrath for four long years in World War I, losing 1.2 million young men, was undermined by a deadly combination of pro-Communist and pro-Nazi extremists in the French polity.
Churchill was widely distrusted at home and abroad, even when he finally became Prime Minister. His constant calls for preparedness in the House of Commons had led many in Britain, in Europe, and even in the U.S. to call him a bloody old war-monger.
Don’t you realize, he pleaded with his countrymen, that being armed, being prepared for war is the best way to avoid war. They would not listen. Instead, men like Joe Kennedy, were far more popular. Kennedy, who would live to see one son become president and two more sons elected to the Senate, cheerfully pleaded guilty to being an appeaser of Adolf Hitler.
Old Churchill certainly was on this date in 1940. He was 65. He had not expected to live past 40. And he had held virtually every important office in British politics. But the top spot – the premiership – had long eluded him.
Still, when he entered the Prime Minister’s office at Number 10 Downing Street, it was as if “a jolt of electricity” had gone through the old edifice. Senior civil servants were seen running down the corridors of Whitehall, where Britain’s government offices are housed. They were scrambling to meet Winston’s demands for Action this Day.
He would memorably write of this day and hour. It seemed to millions around the world that Britain was doomed, that she was being led by an old used-up man.
He proved them all wrong. As President Kennedy would say in making Churchill an honorary American citizen, “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
“I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my previous life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” To his ever-faithful bodyguard, Inspector “Tommy” Thompson, he confessed, “I only pray it’s not too late.”
It wasn’t. Churchill would live to walk over the ruins of the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin, where the man who promised a Thousand-year Reich shot himself after only 12.
When he turned 80, a grateful Parliament voted him 50,000 pounds. He and his family had a wonderful time planning what to do with the money.
The man hated as a bloody warmonger decided to endow a Butterfly Conservancy. My wife and I visited one of these near Niagara Falls today. You cannot imagine a more peaceful place. These beautiful creatures light on your shoulders. They rest on the warm stones beneath your feet. I must take care with my Size 12 boots to avoid harming one of God’s loveliest creations.
Winston eventually turned down the 50,000 pounds. It was enough for him that England remembered him. And that Americans do, too.
He said to the British people: “We are fighting by ourselves alone, but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.” And he was the first to recognize the heroic contributions of the Canadians and other Commonwealth nations to the fight against Nazi tyranny. But they also fought for Americans’ Freedom. And every May 10th, it’s good to remember.