Churchill war ministry

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Churchill war ministry
Churchill HU 90973.jpg
Winston Churchill on 2 August 1944
Date formed10 May 1940 (1940-05-10)
Date dissolved23 May 1945 (1945-05-23)
People and organisations
MonarchGeorge VI
Prime MinisterWinston Churchill
Deputy Prime MinisterClement Attlee (1942–1945)
Total no. of ministers223 appointments
Member parties
Status in legislatureMajority (coalition)
Legislature term(s)37th UK Parliament
Incoming formationNorway Debate
PredecessorChamberlain war ministry
SuccessorChurchill caretaker ministry

The Churchill war ministry was the United Kingdom's coalition government for most of the Second World War from 10 May 1940 to 23 May 1945. It was led by Winston Churchill, who was appointed Prime Minister by King George VI following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain in the aftermath of the Norway Debate.

At the outset, Churchill formed a five-man War Cabinet which included Chamberlain as Lord President of the Council, Clement Attlee as Lord Privy Seal and later as Deputy Prime Minister, Viscount Halifax as Foreign Secretary and Arthur Greenwood as a minister without portfolio. Although the original war cabinet was limited to five members, in practice they were augmented by the service chiefs and ministers who attended the majority of meetings. The cabinet changed in size and membership as the war progressed but there were significant additions later in 1940 when it was increased to eight after Churchill, Attlee and Greenwood were joined by Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour and National Service; Anthony Eden as Foreign Secretary – replacing Halifax, who was sent to Washington D.C. as ambassador to the United States; Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production; Sir Kingsley Wood as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Sir John Anderson as Lord President of the Council – replacing Chamberlain who died in November (Anderson later became Chancellor after Kingsley Wood's death in September 1943).

The coalition was dissolved in May 1945, following the final defeat of Germany, when the Labour Party decided to withdraw in order to prepare for a general election. Churchill, who was the leader of the Conservative Party, decided to resign but was asked by the King to form a caretaker government, essentially a Conservative one, to manage the country's affairs until completion of the general election on 26 July that year.


The 1935 general election had resulted in a Conservative victory with a substantial majority and Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister. In May 1937, Baldwin retired and was succeeded by Neville Chamberlain who continued Baldwin's foreign policy of appeasement in the face of German, Italian and Japanese aggression. Having signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, Chamberlain became alarmed by the dictator's continuing aggression and, in March 1939, signed the Anglo-Polish military alliance which supposedly guaranteed British support for Poland if attacked. Chamberlain issued the declaration of war against Germany on 3 September 1939 and formed a war cabinet which included Winston Churchill (out of office since June 1929) as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Dissatisfaction with Chamberlain's leadership became widespread in the spring of 1940 after Germany successfully invaded Norway. In response, the House of Commons held the Norway Debate from 7 to 9 May. At the end of the second day, the Labour opposition forced a division which was in effect a motion of no confidence in Chamberlain. The government's majority of 213 was reduced to 81, still a victory but nevertheless a shattering blow for Chamberlain.

9–13 May 1940: Creation of a new government[edit]

Neville Chamberlain resigned to make way for Churchill as Prime Minister.

On Thursday, 9 May, Chamberlain attempted to form a National Coalition Government. In talks at Downing Street with Viscount Halifax and Churchill, he indicated that he was quite ready to resign if that was necessary for Labour to enter such a government. Labour's leader Clement Attlee and his deputy Arthur Greenwood then joined the meeting, and when asked, they indicated that they must first consult their party's National Executive Committee (then in Bournemouth to prepare for the annual conference), but it was unlikely they could serve in a government led by Chamberlain; they probably would be able to serve under some other Conservative.[1]

After Attlee and Greenwood left, Chamberlain asked whom he should recommend to the King as his successor. The version of events given by Churchill is that Chamberlain's preference for Halifax was obvious (Churchill implies that the spat between Churchill and the Labour benches the previous night had something to do with that); there was a long silence which Halifax eventually broke by saying he did not believe he could lead the government effectively as a member of the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons.[2] Churchill's version gets the date wrong, and he fails to mention the presence of David Margesson, the government Chief Whip.[2][3][4]

Halifax's account omits the dramatic pause and gives an additional reason: "PM said I was the man mentioned as most acceptable. I said it would be hopeless position. 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. Winston did not demur."[1] According to Halifax, Margesson then confirmed that the House of Commons had been veering to Churchill.

In a letter to Churchill written that night,[5] Bob Boothby asserted that parliamentary opinion was hardening against Halifax, claiming in a postscript that according to Liberal MP Clement Davies, "Attlee & Greenwood are unable to distinguish between the PM & Halifax and are not prepared to serve under the latter". Davies (who thought Chamberlain should go, and be replaced by Churchill) had lunched with Attlee and Greenwood (and argued his case) shortly before they saw Chamberlain.[6] Labour's Hugh Dalton, however, noted in his diary entry for 9 May that he had spoken with Attlee, who "agrees with my preference for Halifax over Churchill, but we both think either would be tolerable".[7]

On the morning of Friday, 10 May, Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. Chamberlain initially felt that a change of government at such a time would be inappropriate, but upon being given confirmation that Labour would not serve under him, he announced to the War Cabinet his intention to resign.[8] Scarcely more than three days after he had opened the debate, Chamberlain went to Buckingham Palace to resign as Prime Minister. Despite resigning as PM, however, he continued to be the leader of the Conservative Party. He explained to the King why Halifax, whom the King thought the obvious candidate,[9] did not want to become Prime Minister. The King then sent for Churchill and asked him to form a new government; according to Churchill, there was no stipulation that it must be a coalition government.[10]

At 21:00 on 10 May, Chamberlain announced the change of Prime Minister over the BBC. Churchill's first act as Prime Minister was to ask Attlee to come and see him at Admiralty House. Next, he wrote to Chamberlain to thank him for his promised support. He then began to construct his coalition cabinet: before he went to bed at 03:00 on Saturday, 11 May, six hours after Chamberlain's original announcement, Churchill had established the composition of the new War Cabinet and appointed the heads of the three Service Ministries.[11]

Clement Attlee was the serving deputy to Churchill from 1942.

On Saturday, 11 May, the Labour Party agreed to join a national government under Churchill's leadership and he was able to form his war cabinet. In his biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins described the Churchill cabinet as one "for winning", while the former Chamberlain cabinet was one "for losing".[12] Labour leader Clement Attlee relinquished his official role as Leader of the Opposition to become Lord Privy Seal (until 19 February 1942 when he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister). Arthur Greenwood, Labour's deputy leader, was appointed a minister without portfolio.[13]

The main problem for Churchill as he became Prime Minister was that he was not the leader of the majority Conservative Party and, needing its support, was obliged to include Chamberlain in the war cabinet, but this was not to Labour's liking. Initially, Churchill proposed to appoint Chamberlain as both Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Attlee objected and Churchill decided to appoint Chamberlain as Lord President of the Council. The fifth member of the war cabinet was Halifax, who retained his position as Foreign Secretary.[14] Instead of Chamberlain, Kingsley Wood became Chancellor but, until 3 October 1940, he was not a member of the war cabinet.[15]

Churchill appointed himself as Leader of the House (it was normal procedure until 1942 for a prime minister in the Commons to lead the House) and created for himself the new role of Minister of Defence, so that he would be permanent chair of the Cabinet Defence Committee which included the three service ministers and the three service chiefs.[16] Anthony Eden became Secretary of State for War, Labour's A. V. Alexander succeeded Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and the leader of the Liberal Party, Sir Archibald Sinclair, became Secretary of State for Air.[17] The three service Chiefs of Staff (CoS) at this time were Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord; Air Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, the Chief of the Air Staff; and Field Marshal Sir Edmund Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). (On 27 May, Ironside was replaced at Churchill's request by his deputy Field Marshal Sir John Dill, and Ironside became Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces.)[18]

By Monday, 13 May, most of the senior government posts were filled. That day was Whit Monday, normally a bank holiday but cancelled by the incoming government. A specially convened sitting of the House of Commons was held and Churchill spoke for the first time as Prime Minister:[19]

I beg to move, that this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.

He explained that a War Cabinet of five members had been formed to represent the unity of the nation with all three main party leaders agreeing to serve either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office. Churchill was hoping to complete all ministerial appointments by the end of the 14th. He announced an adjournment of Commons business until the 21st and apologised for making only a short address for the present. Even so, his speech has become one of his most famous because he concluded with his statement of intent:[20]

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat". We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength".

In reply, Hastings Lees-Smith as acting Leader of the Opposition announced that Labour would vote for the motion to assure the country of a unified political front.[21] After several other members had spoken, including David Lloyd George and Stafford Cripps, the House divided on the question: "That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion". 381 members voted "aye" in favour of the motion and, apart from the two tellers for the "noes", the wartime coalition was endorsed unanimously.[22]

Leader of the Opposition[edit]

There was no de facto Leader of the Opposition from 11 May 1940 until Attlee resumed the role on 23 May 1945. The Labour Party appointed an acting Leader of the Opposition whose job, although he was in effect a member of the national government, was to ensure the continued functionality of the House of Commons. Due process in the Commons requires someone, even a member of the government, to fill the role even if there is no actual opposition.[23] The first acting leader was Hastings Lees-Smith, the MP for Keighley, who died in office on 18 December 1941. He was briefly succeeded by Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and then, from 22 February 1942, by Arthur Greenwood who had left the War Cabinet, until 23 May 1945.[24]

14 May 1940 to 23 May 1945[edit]

  • 2 August 1940: Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, joins the War Cabinet.
  • 22 September 1940: resignation of Neville Chamberlain for health reasons (terminal bowel cancer).
  • October 1940: Sir John Anderson succeeds Chamberlain as Lord President. Sir Kingsley Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, enter the War Cabinet. Lord Halifax assumes the additional job of Leader of the House of Lords.
  • 9 November 1940: death of Neville Chamberlain.
  • December 1940: Anthony Eden succeeds Lord Halifax as Foreign Secretary. Halifax remains nominally in the Cabinet as Ambassador to the United States. His successor as Leader of the House of Lords is not in the War Cabinet.
  • May 1941: Lord Beaverbrook ceased to be Minister of Aircraft Production, but remains in the Cabinet as Minister of State. His successor was not in the War Cabinet.
  • June 1941: Lord Beaverbrook becomes Minister of Supply, remaining in the War Cabinet.
  • 1941: Oliver Lyttelton enters the Cabinet as Minister-Resident for the Middle East.
  • 4 February 1942: Lord Beaverbrook becomes Minister of War Production; his successor as Minister of Supply is not in the War Cabinet.
  • 19 February 1942: Beaverbrook resigns and no replacement Minister of War Production is appointed for the moment. Clement Attlee becomes Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister. Sir Stafford Cripps succeeds Attlee as Lord Privy Seal and takes over the position of Leader of the House of Commons from Churchill. Sir Kingsley Wood leaves the War Cabinet, though remaining Chancellor of the Exchequer.
  • 22 February 1942: Arthur Greenwood leaves the War Cabinet to assume the role of Leader of the Opposition, necessary for House of Commons functionality, till 23 May 1945.[24]
  • March 1942: Oliver Lyttelton fills the vacant position of Minister of Production ("War" was dropped from the title). Richard Gardiner Casey (a member of the Australian Parliament) succeeds Oliver Lyttelton as Minister Resident in the Middle East.
  • October 1942: Sir Stafford Cripps retires as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons and leaves the War Cabinet. His successor as Lord Privy Seal is not in the Cabinet, Anthony Eden takes the additional position of Leader of the House of Commons. The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, enters the Cabinet.
  • 21 September 1943: death of Sir Kingsley Wood.
  • September 1943: Sir John Anderson succeeds Sir Kingsley Wood as Chancellor of the Exchequer, remaining in the War Cabinet. Clement Attlee succeeds Anderson as Lord President, remaining also Deputy Prime Minister. Attlee's successor as Dominions Secretary is not in the Cabinet.
  • November 1943: Lord Woolton enters the Cabinet as Minister of Reconstruction.
  • January to November 1944: Lord Moyne replaces Richard Gardiner Casey as Minister Resident in the Middle East.

End of the ministry, 23 May 1945[edit]

The Labour Party decided to leave the coalition on 23 May 1945 to begin its general election campaign. Churchill resigned as Prime Minister but the King asked him to form a temporary government until the election was held in July. Churchill agreed and his new ministry, essentially a Conservative one, held office for the next two months until it was replaced by Clement Attlee's Labour government after their election victory.[citation needed]

War Cabinet members[edit]

Minister Portfolio Took office Left office Party
Winston Churchill Prime Minister
First Lord of the Treasury
Minister of Defence
10 May 1940 23 May 1945 Conservative
Clement Attlee Lord Privy Seal 11 May 1940 15 February 1942 Labour
Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs 15 February 1942 24 September 1943[25]
Deputy Prime Minister 19 February 1942 23 May 1945
Lord President of the Council 24 September 1943 23 May 1945
Neville Chamberlain Lord President of the Council 10 May 1940 29 September 1940[26] Conservative
Viscount Halifax Foreign Secretary 10 May 1940 22 December 1940[27] Conservative
Arthur Greenwood Minister without portfolio 11 May 1940 22 February 1942[28] Labour
Lord Beaverbrook Minister of Aircraft Production 2 August 1940 30 April 1941[25] Conservative
Minister of State 1 May 1941 29 June 1941
Minister of Supply 29 June 1941 4 February 1942
Minister of War Production 4 February 1942 19 February 1942
Sir John Anderson Lord President of the Council 3 October 1940 24 September 1943 National
Chancellor of the Exchequer 24 September 1943 23 May 1945
Sir Kingsley Wood Chancellor of the Exchequer 3 October 1940 22 February 1942[29] Conservative
Ernest Bevin Minister of Labour and National Service 3 October 1940 23 May 1945 Labour
Anthony Eden Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 22 December 1940 26 July 1945 Conservative
Sir Stafford Cripps Lord Privy Seal 19 February 1942 22 November 1942[25] Labour
Oliver Lyttelton Minister-Resident for the Middle East June 1941 12 March 1942 Conservative
Minister of Production 12 March 1942 23 May 1945
Herbert Morrison Home Secretary 3 October 1940 23 May 1945 Labour
Lord Woolton Minister of Reconstruction 11 November 1943 23 May 1945 Conservative
Richard Casey Minister-Resident for the Middle East 12 March 1942 January 1944 National
Lord Moyne Minister-Resident for the Middle East January 1944 6 November 1944[25] Conservative

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b quoted in Gilbert, as from David Dilks, ed. (1971). The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan O.M 1938–45. London: Cassel. p. 280 (diary entry for 9 May 1940). ISBN 0-30493737-1.
  2. ^ a b Churchill 1948, pp. 523–524.
  3. ^ Jenkins 2001, p. 583.
  4. ^ Shakespeare 2017, p. 362.
  5. ^ cited in Gilbert: "Letter of 9 May 1940, marked by Churchill 'secret, for dinner, in a box'; Churchill papers 2/392".
  6. ^ Schneer, Jonathan (16 March 2015). Ministers at War. Oneworld Publications. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-78074-614-2.
  7. ^ quoted in Thomas-Symonds, Nicklaus (1 March 2012). Attlee: A Life in Politics. I.B.Tauris. pp. 94–95. ISBN 978-0-85773-074-9.
  8. ^ War Cabinet No. 119 of 1940, 4.30 p.m. (there were three War Cabinet meetings that day): Cabinet papers 65/7 cited in Gilbert.
  9. ^ Wheeler-Bennett 1958, pp. 433–434.
  10. ^ Churchill 1948, p. 525.
  11. ^ Gilbert 1983, pp. 299–314.
  12. ^ Jenkins 2001, pp. 714–715.
  13. ^ Jenkins 2001, p. 587.
  14. ^ Jenkins 2001, pp. 587–588.
  15. ^ Jenkins 2001, p. 588.
  16. ^ Hermiston 2016, p. 27.
  17. ^ Hermiston 2016, p. 26.
  18. ^ Hastings 2009, p. 25.
  19. ^ "His Majesty's Government – Churchill". Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 360, col. 1501. 13 May 1940. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  20. ^ "His Majesty's Government – Churchill". Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 360, col. 1502. 13 May 1940. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  21. ^ "His Majesty's Government – Lees-Smith". Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 360, cols 1504–1505. 13 May 1940. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  22. ^ "His Majesty's Government – Division". Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 360, col. 1525. 13 May 1940. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  23. ^ "Ministers of the Crown Act 1937". Modern Law Review. Blackwell Publishing. 1 (2): 145–148. 1937. ISSN 0026-7961. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  24. ^ a b Jenkins 2001, p. 685.
  25. ^ a b c d Successor was not in the War Cabinet.
  26. ^ Chamberlain resigned for health reasons (cancer of the colon) and died on 9 November.
  27. ^ Halifax was replaced by Eden and sent to Washington as British Ambassador to the United States.
  28. ^ Greenwood left the War Cabinet and was acting Leader of the Opposition until 23 May 1945.
  29. ^ Wood left the War Cabinet but remained Chancellor until his death on 21 September 1943.


External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Butler, David; Butler, Gareth (2000). Twentieth Century British Political Facts, 1900–2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333 77222 9.
Preceded by
Chamberlain war ministry
Government of the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Churchill caretaker ministry