Richard Toye

 

On his book Winston Churchill: A Life in the News

Cover Interview of April 28, 2021

A close-up

I have to say the first pages in the book should be read first because I deliberately wrote them in order to draw the reader in. They tell of an episode in 1929 when Churchill accused the Daily Herald, a left-wing paper, of faking a photo in order to discredit him. This turned out not to be true. It’s an interesting story with obvious relevance to today’s discourse of “fake news”. It also illustrates Churchill’s habit of flying off the handle, sometimes without knowledge of all the facts, which is a central theme of the book.

I would also point readers to the passage dealing with 10 May 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister. Although the events behind the scenes have been covered in great detail by historians, nobody had previously traced what the public knew about the day’s unfolding events and when.

On the morning of the day in question, the Daily Express carried a report that Chamberlain would stand down—Labour being unwilling to serve under him in a reconstructed government—and that Churchill would likely be the new Prime Minister. By the time that the paper hit readers’ breakfast tables, though, they might already have heard the 7am BBC news, in which it was reported that the Germans had invaded Holland, and that there had been “air activity in the Thames Estuary”. An hour later, it was known that Belgium had been attacked too. In the light of the news of the German actions, Chamberlain briefly determined to hang on, but quickly bowed to the inevitable. At 6pm listeners were told that the British War Cabinet had met three times and that “the French Council of minister is in session at this moment”. At three minutes to six, Chamberlain arrived at Buckingham Palace. Just over half an hour later, he emerged, to be followed in at once by Churchill. It was now clear to journalists that the change had been made; but the public did not yet know. At 9pm Chamberlain himself made a broadcast, in which he announced his replacement by Churchill. The American news agency United Press quickly reported that “The change of government was being accomplished in record-breaking speed for the ordinarily slow and traditionally form-bound British parliamentary system. Only this morning it generally was believed that despite the unleashing of the German attack on the low countries and the imminent threat to the British Isles that it would be 10 days or a fortnight before a new government might be formed”.