Winston Churchill Rallied Britain to Its Finest Hour

This Winston Churchill inscribed photograph sold for $17,925 at an April 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In June 1940, Great Britain was in mortal danger. Germany had captured all of Western Europe and had begun preparations for an invasion of Britain. It was the most serious threat to their security since the Spanish Armada in 1588. If Hitler’s panzer divisions were able to cross the channel they would overwhelm the British Army.

The new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, knew his county faced a daunting challenge. On June 18, he stood before the House of Commons: “The Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon it depends our British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island or lose the war … Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say … ‘This was their finest hour!’ ”

Operation Sea Lowe or “Sea Lion” was the Nazi plan to invade Great Britain. The United States had not yet entered the war, so if successful, the Fuhrer’s “Thousand Year Reich” might become a reality.

German war planners fixed the invasion date for mid-September, despite Britain’s powerful navy being a serious threat to any invasion. The plan was for the German air force, the Luftwaffe, to clear the skies and then destroy the Royal Navy. Then the invasion could begin unimpeded.

The Luftwaffe was stationed in Norway, Belgium and France. It comprised 2,670 fighters and bombers, compared to only 640 British Spitfires. The Battle of Britain – the first large-scale battle to be fought exclusively in the air – was about to begin.

An epic air battle was fought in two successive phases with heroics on both sides. However, the Germans did not realize the Royal Air Force was actually in dire straits, but then suddenly something happened that changed the entire course of the war.

German bombers accidentally dropped a load of bombs on South London, the first times civilians had ever been attacked. Enraged British forces retaliated by bombing Berlin! This shocked the Germans, who had faithfully promised their people they were entirely safe from any war.

What followed was the final phase of the Battle of Britain.

Beginning on Sept. 7, 200 German bombers – each night – assaulted London using incendiary devices to create fires and high-explosive bombs to destroy structures. On Sept. 15, two massive waves of Germans attacked England, but were somehow repulsed by furious RAF counterattacks. Then another bomber force was repulsed and caused Hitler to first postpone the invasion, and then abandon the idea entirely.

So the threat of invasion was lifted, but the bombing intensified.

On the terrible evening of Oct. 15, nearly 500 German planes dropped 386 tons of explosives and an astonishing 17,000 incendiary devices on London proper. The “blitz” continued throughout the 1940-41 winter as German planes continued to haunt the skies each night.

A major attack on May 10, 1941, turned out to be the last one as five weeks later, Hitler decided to invade Russia. Most Luftwaffe squadrons on the Atlantic were redeployed to the Eastern front.

The British had not been broken and the Battle of Britain did indeed turn out to be “Their Finest Hour.”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Gallipoli Battle Established Australian, New Zealand Forces as Ferocious Fighters

The 1981 film Gallipoli starred Mel Gibson and was directed by Peter Weir. This Australian daybill went to auction in September 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

Mel Gibson fans remember him for his role in Gallipoli, which won him his second AFI film award in 1981 (his first was for Mad Max). However, the actual history of the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in World War I (April 25, 1915-Jan. 9, 1916) is rarely mentioned.

Perhaps that is because in Great Britain it is regarded as an embarrassing military debacle. It is remembered primarily for the fact it almost cost a young Winston Churchill his career while resulting in him losing his job as the First Lord of the Admiralty. He was forced to resign in May 1916 as a consequence of the campaign’s utter failure.

For the triumphant Turks, Gallipoli was a glorious victory. It spurred the nationalist fervor that would lead to the founding of the Turkish Republic eight short years later. Gallipoli was also a personal triumph for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who became the founder of the modern state of Turkey in 1923.

The Gallipoli campaign was a flawed response to the closure of the Dardanelles strait by the Ottoman Empire that limited Allied shipping to Russia. Churchill endorsed a plan that included a naval attack, followed by an amphibious landing on the peninsula. However, the Turks repelled the invasion and inflicted 250,000 casualties on Allied forces. Critics claim the evacuation of Allied troops from the shambles of the battlefield was the best executed phase of the entire campaign!

One bright spot was the performance on the battlefield by the Australians and New Zealanders. The combined ANZAC forces were so impressive that their reputation as ferocious fighters was permanently established. April 25 – Anzac Day – is solemnly commemorated in both countries and people make pilgrimages to pay their respects for so much bloodshed, even in a lost cause.


Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].