When a Nation Prayed

May 1, 2014

“I should be ashamed of myself if I were the First of May,” Winston Churchill said as he swept into Number 10 Downing Street. It was a bitter, cold, London day of sheeting rain in 1940. Churchill had just arrived for a meeting with Prime Minister Chamberlain and the War Cabinet. The military and political situation on the Continent looked as dreary as the weather.

“I think Winston should be ashamed of himself anyway,” wrote 25-year old John Colville in his diary that day. The brilliant young “Jock” was private secretary to the Prime Minister. And, ever loyal, he thought Winston was conspiring to oust Neville Chamberlain and take his place. Actually, Winston was the only Churchillian who wasn’t plotting against his chief.

Ten days later came the deluge. German panzer tanks and Stuka dive bombers taught the world what blitzkrieg (lightning war) meant as they swept into neutral Holland, overran Belgium, and drove deep into France.

A political crisis simultaneously unfolded in London on that 10 May 1940. A vote of No Confidence in Prime Minister Chamberlain’s faltering Norwegian expedition was taken in the House of Commons. Chamberlain’s Conservative Party won that vote, but he was personally humiliated by the desertion of scores of Tory Members of Parliament. Chamberlain could not remain as Prime Minister.

The Labour Party Opposition refused to serve in a national coalition government under Chamberlain. That left only Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, and Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, as possible successors.

Chamberlain, after momentarily thinking he might hang on in the face of that morning’s German onslaught, recognized reality and submitted his resignation to King George VI.  The King clearly preferred Halifax as Prime Minister and told him so. So did Chamberlain. So did most of the majority Tories in the House of Commons. But Halifax demurred. He did not think he could effectively lead a national coalition from the House of Lords.

That left Churchill. The King sent for him and asked him to form a new government. All the while, in France, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Army were reeling under the hammer blows of Hitler’s seemingly invincible Wehrmacht. No one had imagined such a powerful drive. In 1914 in World War I, the German Army had been stopped at the River Marne. It was called “the Miracle of the Marne.” But there would be no miracles for prostrate France in 1940.

At this dark hour, it appeared that the BEF would be cut off and smashed by a combination of German armor (tanks) and air strikes from the Luftwaffe. The BEF withdrew first to Calais, on the coast of France, then to Dunkirk. Their backs were literally to the English Channel.

One British unit at Calais was encircled by the rapid German advance. Facing annihilation or surrender, they sent a three-word cable to London, to Whitehall, Britain’s War Office. “But if not…” was all that their message said. It was all it had to say. Britons knew their King James Bible. Those words were from the Book of Daniel. The three young Israelites defied the pagan king’s order. They prayed to God to deliver them:

But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up"

In the new War Cabinet, Prime Minister Churchill was by no means powerfully seated. Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax remained in the inner circle. Churchill could not safely defy them.

Halifax wanted only two things. He thought Britain should pursue talks with Hitler through the intercession of Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. And, the pious Halifax thought there should be a National Day of Prayer in Britain for the rescue of the encircled BEF.

The story of those Five Days in London is told in all its drama by the gifted pen of John Lukacs. Winston wanted no hint of talks with the treacherous Mussolini or, certainly, with the “wicked” Adolf Hitler. But he could not come right out and say so in the War Cabinet.

So, he went along instead with Halifax’s call for a National Day of Prayer. Candidly, Winston viewed such an exercise as something of a waste of time at such a moment. He was spending every waking minute trying to bring the BEF home and guarding against a possible airborne assault by German paratroopers. He worried the Germans might seize London while the British Army was stranded in France. He agreed, not with the best of grace, to go to Westminster Abbey with Lord Halifax for the Prayer Service.

King George VI had a higher view of prayer than Winston did. He took to the air in a broadcast to the people. Afflicted with an almost paralyzing stammer, the King nonetheless submitted to careful coaching from Lionel Logue (in an episode made famous by the Oscar-winning movie, “The King’s Speech.”)

The King delivered these lines flawlessly:

In this fateful hour we turn, as our fathers before us have turned in all times of trial, to God Most High…Let us with heart and soul humbly but confidently commit our cause to God and ask His aid that we may valiantly defend the right as it is given us to see it…

Winston Churchill had stirred the English soul with his powerful rhetoric, to be sure. He called upon the British people “to so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say this was their Finest Hour.”

What happened next? The Germans did not swoop down on undefended London with paratroopers. In France, their tanks were halted by order of the Fürer, Adolf Hitler.

The English Channel in those late May days was not stormy as it usually was, but “calm as a millpond.” And the encircled BEF began to be evacuated. Slowly, at first, the soldiers were brought off the beaches. They had to leave behind their tanks, their artillery, their trucks, and all their supplies.

Still, they were brought off. In the War Diary he dutifully recorded every day -- even when Buckingham Palace was hit by German bombs -- the King kept a tally of the daily toll of those rescued from Dunkirk.

Operation Dynamo, as the evacuation was called, employed some 222 vessels of the Royal Navy, 91 passenger ships or merchant vessels and a mosquito fleet of small fishing smacks. Even tugboats, ferry boats, and sailboats were mustered into service. All of this amazing rescue operation, and the King’s prayers for its success, are recorded in the work of his official biographer, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. (Sir John was also coached for his childhood stammer by Lionel Logue.)

In the end, a total of 335,000 troops were brought over to England from France. Of these 111,000 were French soldiers, many of whom had bravely manned the defense perimeter. So, even in the midst of military disasters that would soon bring about the Fall of France, Britain would not be left undefended. A third of a million soldiers would stand ready to repel any German invasion.

Winston Churchill was stunned at the enormity of what had been achieved. Sometimes skeptical, Winston now gratefully called Operation Dynamo “a miracle of deliverance.”

Today, we Americans enter our own National Day of Prayer at a somber and threatening time. Iran is racing unimpeded to develop a nuclear bomb. Russia is bent on carving up Ukraine. The Taliban in Afghanistan awaits only our withdrawal to spring. Will friendly Taiwan next feel the hot breath of an invader?

Around the world, America is on the retreat. And the only people who seem to fear the Government of the United States are our fellow Americans.

Surely, this is a Day when we need the help of God Most High. If a King could humble himself in prayer, surely we can, too.