WW2 officially began on 1 September 1939, but Churchill did not become Prime Minister until 10 May 1940. Neville Chamberlain, the same leader of appeasement with Hitler, remained Prime Minister all that time.

Why is this? Wasn't some emergency election possible? Didn't the British people recognize how ill-suited Chamberlain would be because of his former appeasement? Why didn't Chamberlain resign much earlier, since his championing of appeasement had clearly failed?

I did read a tiny bit of this on Churchill's Wikipedia page. It said "it became clear that, following failure in Norway, the country had no confidence in Chamberlain's prosecution of the war and so Chamberlain resigned." But it still raises the question as to why a new Prime Minister was not chosen right away in September 1939, or at least some time in that year.

I also noticed that 10 May 1940 is exactly the same date as the German invasion of Benelux and France. And I remembered the Phony War that existed up until that date, IIRC. In other words, the end of the Phony War apparently has something to do with this, but it's hard to see which is the chicken and which is the egg.

Edit: The title was originally, "Why didn't Churchill become Prime Minister some time in 1939?" I still think that question and the current one are practically synonymous, because, well, who else would become PM except Churchill? Why didn't one resign early, AFAIK, is the same as saying why didn't the other step in earlier? I don't know if this really matters or not, but wanted to explain myself anyway.

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    "it became clear that, following failure in Norway, the country had no confidence in Chamberlain's prosecution of the war and so Chamberlain resigned." But it still begs the question as to why a new Prime Minister was not chosen right away in September 1939 That quote actually answered the question - the country didn't lose faith in Chamberlain's leadership until May 1940, hence he wasn't replaced. It's easy to blame everything on Chamberlain with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time his Appeasement had the support of the British public, and he used the preciously won time to rearm.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 9:29
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    No, I said blaming Chamberlain for Appeasement is anachronistic. It ignores the fact that the British public as well as the British Empire were all against a war, not to mention the acute weakness of the British military. As I said, appeasement bought precious time for Britain to rearm.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 10:46
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    Your question seems to contain a lot of confusion about the British political system. On the one hand, you ask why there wasn't a special election to replace Chamberlain but, on the other, you talk about the possibility of Churchill "step[ping] in". Neither of these things is how the British Prime Minister is replaced. The Prime Minister is neither elected by the public, nor appointed by some dude saying "OK, I'll give it a go." The Prime Minister is chosen by the party or coalition that has a majority in Parliament, by whatever means they see fit. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 12:19
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    About the edit: who else would become PM except Churchill? -> for instance, Lord Halifax for the Tories or Clement Attlee for the Labour were possible candidates.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 14:22
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    "Didn't the British people recognize how ill-suited.." You give people far too much credit.
    – Dunk
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 16:01

6 Answers 6


Didn't the British people recognize how ill-suited Chamberlain would be because of his former appeasement?

No, because it's not true at all. Chamberlain may certainly be an inadequate war leader, but Appeasement is no evidence for it. If you are suggesting that people might think his earlier Appeasement meant Chamberlain wouldn't fight Germany, there's little evidence contemporaries believed it, probably because it would have seem blatantly false. Lest we forget, it was under Chamberlain that Britain declared war on Germany.

I realise this goes against the orthodox view first set in 1940 by the highly problematic, scapegoating book Guilty Men, however Chamberlain was not nearly as naively pacifistic as he is often portrayed as. In fact, under his ministry Britain rearmed as quickly as financial and public pressures would permit - and the rest of the British government would have known this.

Chamberlain, his senior ministers, and their advisers had no intention of relying solely on diplomatic means . . . [the British government] embarked on a program of strengthening the armed forces beginning in 1934 . . . Chamberlain observed [that] 'I believe the double policy of rearmament and better relations with Germany and Italy will carry us safely though the danger period, if only the Foreign Office will play up.'

But difficulty for Chamberlain not only resided with the Foreign office that . . . advocated the balance of power. On the left, the opposition Labour Party, supported by pacifist organizations like the Women's international League of Peace and Freedom, argued against rearmament.

Maurer, John H., ed. Churchill and the Strategic Dilemmas Before the World Wars: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel. Routledge, 2014.

The key point here is that Chamberlain's rearmament was opposed by the Labour Party. So even if people were to argue Chamberlain was too much of a pacifist to be a war leader, such an attack would have needed to come from within his own party, not the political opposition. As we shall see, he retained the support of the Conservative Party right to the very end.

That's not to say some individuals may have suspected Chamberlain of cowardice or inaction, especially as the phony war drew on, but it would have been an incredible claim shortly after the Chamberlain ministry declared war in 1939. In any case, up to his resignation but there was no general feeling that Chamberlain couldn't be trusted to fight.

Of course, whether he could fight well is another question entirely.

Why didn't Chamberlain resign much earlier, since his championing of appeasement had clearly failed?

The premise here seems to be that people would have wanted to punish Chamberlain, so to speak, with removal from office for pursuing Appeasement. The thing is, that is an anachronistic view of the road to war, one certainly not shared by Chamberlain or his contemporaries. The reason is simple: most of them advocated or applauded appeasement just a year ago.

Chamberlain didn't invent or "champion" Appeasement, he simply believed he had no other realistic option. Historians now realise that British leaders including Chamberlain were acutely aware of just how weak the British military was, how adverse the strategic situation was, and how constrained they were by the poor economic and financial resources available. The British public at home was still in no mood for war - Chamberlain was universally cheered in the press when he returned from Munich. Overseas, the Dominions refused to support a "war of aggression" against Germany, and the United States remained stuck in its isolationist ways.

[A]ppeasement enjoyed considerable public support, certainly until the autumn of 1938 . . . [T]he 1967 Public Records Act facilitated greater access to official sources. This allowed historians to compile more detailed analyses, suggesting that the harsh economic, military and strategic realities of the 1930s demanded a policy of appeasement, Historians highlighted Britain's relative military weakness, noting how contemporary politicians were acutely aware of Britain's shortcomings. Furthermore, attention was drawn to . . . Japanese expansionism in the Far East, the financial constraints on rearmament, [and] the pro-appeasement Dominions.

Hucker, Daniel. Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France. Routledge, 2016.

This doesn't mean Appeasement was necessarily the right move. Perhaps an early response to Hitler could have intimidated him into backing down. Or perhaps not: threatening military response would have been hollow. This remains an area of scholarly debate. The point, though, is that Chamberlain acted according to the public will, pursuing a strategy that seemed reasonable to many of his contemporaries.

It's important to note that appeasement was over by early 1939, long before the war had broken out. Chamberlain was not appeasing Hitler for the sake of appeasing Hitler, but rather trying to do his best given the hand he was dealt, and he changed his approach as the situation changed in the lead up to war. By 1939, Appeasement had "failed", but it also "succeeded". Its failure to contain Germany helped steeled public opinion in both Britain and her Empire for the upcoming war. Moreover, delaying the confrontation bought Britain precious time to rearm, which laid the foundations for victory in the Battle of Britain.

Thus, it wouldn't have made much sense for people to replace him for the association with appeasement after the war begun.

1940 May 10 is exactly the same date as the German invasion of Benelux and France . . . In other words, the end of the Phony War apparently has something to do with this, but it's hard to see which is the chicken and which is the egg.

Chamberlain retained the support of his party, and therefore by extension Parliament, up until his resignation. His position only really crumbled during the Norway Debate in the aftermath of the failed expedition, on 7 and 8 May. Most notably, retired Admiral of the Fleet Lord Roger Keyes delivered a scathing speech, and many others criticised the Chamberlain ministry's lack of preparations as well as general handling of the campaign.

However, none other than Churchill closed the debates with a strong defence of the government, and Chamberlain ultimately still won the vote of confidence by a majority of 281 to 200.

Nonetheless, at this point Chamberlain believed that a national unity government was necessary for the war effort. Since the Labour and Liberals wouldn't serve under him, he was obliged to resign. The first choice to succeed him was actually Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, not Churchill. In the end however Halifax declined to step up to the position, so it ultimately went to Churchill.

The meetings to arrange for the government restructuring took up the day, so that the handover went into effect on Friday, 10 May. It was thus a total coincidence that on the exact same day Germany launched its offensive.

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    Very detailed answer and I learned some things, so +1, but I still don't fully understand. The premise here seems to be that people would have wanted to punish Chamberlain, so to speak, with removal from office for pursuing Appeasement. Not necessarily punish, but rather, do away with. It seems natural to me that Churchill would be the natural one to do away with appeasement. You mentioned the Labor Party not wanting Chamberlain anymore, so maybe they felt the way I perceive it? BTW I made an edit at the end of my OP just to explain a bit more, not sure it matters.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 11:53
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    @DrZ214 Basically, there was no consideration to "do away with appeasement". What I've been trying to say is Chamberlain pursued appeasement to buy time for rearmament, so it's not like people think he wouldn't fight. Thus they didn't think it necessary to have a "clean break". Does that answer your question?.As for Labour, as I mentioned, they actually attacked Chamberlain for rearmament, so it'd be a bit rich for them to complain he didn't go to war sooner. They never wanted Chamberlain, their opinion just suddenly became relevant because Chamberlain wanted to forge a unity government.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 12:10
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    @DrZ214 I think I see where the issue is. We ought to separate the act of appeasing Hitler from the motivation of pursuing such a policy. Your definition is correct in that Chamberlain did try to placate Hitler with concessions instead of going to war. But that was in Munich. By early/mid 1939 appeasement was dead - it was only an means to an end, as Chamberlain said, to "carry [Britain] safely through the danger period" of rearmament. After Munich, British domestic and imperial opinions solidified for war. So appeasement was not an issue by the time war had broken out.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 12:35
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    Damn, but this is a good answer.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 18:34
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    One point regarding the failure in Norway in 1940 : this is mentioned in @Henry's comment to another answer, but worth bringing out here. Granted that the Norway campaign heavily involved the Navy, it's quite possible to pin the failure on the First Lord of the Admiralty at least as much as the Prime Minister. And he was ... Winston Churchill. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 10:34

Some context to support Semaphore's answer... drawing (partially) from John Terraine's "Right of the Line".

The policy of appeasement is sometimes used to portray Chamberlain as a pacifist under whom Britain was hopelessly unprepared for war. Yet when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer (in charge of finances) in 1935, he rejected an expansion plan prepared by the RAF (one of several) ... but on the grounds that it was far too small!. Which is unusual for a guardian of the public purse. So he definitely saw dangers ahead and wanted to prepare for them - even against popular opinion.

And an opinion : Appeasement was quite a cunning strategy and accomplished its goals. Only one of these was to buy time for rearmament. At the time of Munich (Spring 1938) Britain had only a few Hurricane fighters, whose guns froze above 15000 feet, and less than one squadron of Spitfires ... and a lot of biplanes like Gloster Gladiators (*). Even with Germany's relatively poor preparedness at the time, it would have been an unequal match.

Another goal was to give Hitler a real choice ... abide by the agreement, or break it.

But the main goal was to place the responsibility clearly and absolutely on Hitler if he did break it, and engineer the moral outrage that would unite opinion behind going to war. You will notice that it was "this piece of paper" and not Neville Chamberlain, that promised "Peace in our time".

Without that - say, if Churchill had been PM in 1938 and declared war - perhaps even in 1939 as Chamberlain did - he would have been regarded as a rash warmonger (as he was in the 30s) and the war effort much weakened and dis-united by dissent and bickering. Just as we can still see even 15 years after the 2003 war against Iraq, where the basis for war (the WMDs) was less strongly established.

Appeasement firmly established in the minds of the British that, in 1939, regrettably, the job had to be done and we'd better get on with it.

That being the case, Chamberlain had been proved right in his preparations, and was the logical choice to run the job, at least until the failures e.g. in Norway became apparent.

I can't find the quote attributed to Churchill around that time, that hints he fully understood all this. It was along the lines of "Poor Mr. Chamberlain will be badly treated by the history books. I know this, for I will write them". And of course, he did.
EDIT to update : the actual quote (source) doesn't explicitly support this.

For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.

(*) For an idea how well that might have gone down, I recommend a short story "A Piece of Cake" apparently based on practical experience by Roald Dahl. Yes, that Roald Dahl.

those old Gladiators aren't made of stressed steel like a Hurricane or a Spit. They have taut canvas wings, covered with magnificently inflammable dope, and underneath there are hundreds of small thin sticks, the kind you put under the logs for kindling, only these are drier and thinner. If a clever man said, "I am going to build a big thing that will burn better and quicker than anything else in the world,' and if he applied himself diligently to his task, he would probably finish up by building something very like a Gladiator.
I sat still waiting.
Then suddenly the reply, beautiful in its briefness, but at the same time explaining everything. "Your--parachute--turn--the buckle.'

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    +1 Very excellent points. Appeasement has been given quite an unfairly and overly simplified reputation that unfortunately seems stuck in the public consciousness.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 12:56
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    Whatever time he gained for rearmament was however offset by the fact that that the terms of Munich dictate (and the later occupation of Czechoslovakia) meant that Nazi Germany got Czechoslovak weapons, ammunition and military industry (which was quite considerable) for free, fueling their invasion of Poland and later France. So imho it was not a good bargain.
    – Edheldil
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 17:05
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    @Edheldil That's only true if he could've stopped Hitler. Unless it is assumed that Hitler would back down, there was nothing he could do to stop Germany, because neither the British people nor France was willing to go to war over Sudentenland. Even if they did, they couldn't deploy forces to defend Czechoslovakia anyway. So as the answer states, buying time was only one of the goals - the main one was to rally the people for war.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 17:47
  • @Semaphore the point I wanted to make was that a war between Czechoslovakia and Germany would (I think) bleed wehrmacht (and deny them a free resupply) so much that they would not be able to attack Poland in 1939 and France in 1940.
    – Edheldil
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 8:55

From a German perspective I also think it is unfair to paint Chamberlain as a pacifist who would avoid war at all costs and was unsuitable for the job. He declared war together with France on September 3th, two days after the invasion.

If people are unhappy with the "Phony War", I would like to ask what exactly do they imagine what England and France could have done.

The border between France and Germany was heavily fortified. So Germany has a very good defendable and prepared choke point with a fully equipped modern army. For people who did not experience war it should be pointed out that most people remembered one of the worst wars 20 years earlier who killed many of their family and friends in the horror of trench warfare and were therefore for a good reason not eager to another war.

Moving heavy mobile units or massive infantry was considered impossible in the Ardennes. (which was the reason that Germany's attack was so successful).

Moving through Belgium or the Netherlands to attack Germany would violate their neutrality as long as both countries do not agree. This would in return paint a big red target on their chest which a neighbor who defeated the stronger Poland in weeks. Using force would not only make the Allies the aggressor, it would make the "The Rape of Belgium" propaganda of the Allies in WWI ridiculous.

The Soviet Union also invaded Poland and shared it with Germany. So the obvious partnership excluded a very advantageous two front war and it also allowed Germany to be supplied with goods. Blockading the North Sea is much now less effective.

All points on the western front were also valid for Germany, as France had also strong fortifications and invading the Low Lands again would offer opportunities for France and England to countermoves. So I do not think replacing Chamberlain with Churchill would have any immediate effect and therefore Chamberlain could not be blamed for the inactivity.

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    S Not really correct. While Germany was busy invading Poland there were only second-grade troops and few (by some accounts, no) tanks in the West. France did launch a small offensive into the Saar and met little resistance, but didn't follow through. Several German generals, notably Jodl, have suggested that had they done so, it would have been game over. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 10:10
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    @BlokeDownThePub Take a look at the Saar Offensive. France never crossed the heavily fortified Siegfried line.You should also take in account that Jodl was in the Nuremberg Trial which might influence his objectivity a little bit (A little bad conscience for the Allies: If you would have attacked, you could have defeated us earlier...). Seriously, what I know so far regarding the German side was that the Saar offensive was not considered a credible threat (It is not even mentioned in some of the books I read). Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 18:29

While the other answers give a lot of historical insight, I feel the answer to the question why Churchill didn't become prime minister earlier is because there was no majority in the British Parliament who preferred another parliamentarian over Chamberlain as PM.

This may seem like an answer that is trying to be technically clever rather than insightful, but as it stands the question is mostly illustrating a confusion about how the British political system works. Once this technical answer is given, one may of course ask a follow up question along the lines of "why was there no majority in the house of commons to topple Chamberlain before May 1940"? Which in turn may be related to public support as explained in the other answers.

But the answer to the original question (as stated) falls squarely into the technicalities of how the British Parliamentary system works: even if a PM is exceedingly unpopular (which Chamberlain was not, as elaborated in the other answers) that does not at all mean that s/he will cease being PM.

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    The other side of this is that virtually nobody trusted Churchill. In war he had been responsible for several disastrous operations including Gallipoli and (ironically) the Norway intervention. In peace he had twice changed party, had been responsible for the return to the Gold Standard at an economically damaging parity, had been particularly divisive during the General Strike, had undermined home rule for India, and had spent much of the 1930s attacking his own Government. His only merit was that he was less likely than other Conservative leaders to seek a quick peace
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 14:44

Chamberlain was certainly wrong in his appeasement policies. And no, he wasn't buying time with it. It is clear from his statements from the period that he believed that it was possible to stop Hitler with diplomatic concessions. In this, he was certainly in accordance to the general public sentiment, which was, as other answers and comments point, against war. Certainly, Britain was rearming during the period, but the point of Chamberlain's politics was to avoid war, not to postpone it to a time when Britain was better equipped.

It is important to remember the course of German demands and acquisitions in the 1930's, to understand that those demands were not unreasonable or demented. Germany reannexed the Saar in 1935, through a plebiscite that was provisioned by the Versailles Treaty. It was a region with a majority of German population. Then Germany remilitarised the Rhineland, which was, and never ceased to be, metropolitan German territory. That put an end to a buffer zone between Germany and France, but it can hardly be called an absurd.

Then Germany demanded four other things: 1. the Anschluss of Austria (which had an overwhelmingly German population, that gave strong popular support for the idea), and the annexation of 2. the Sudettenland, 3. Memel, and 4. Dantzig/Gdansk. All those regions were German-majority regions; so, as an abstraction, such demands did not offend the sence of justice of most people. The fact that these apparently reasonable demands were part of a German strategy for war and domination of Europe was not immediately apparent - and was in fact the kernel of the debate about appeasement.

Those who thought that the demands were reasonable and fair, and that Hitler, albeit being a tyrant, was a tyrant of the old kind, with limited strategic goals that could be negotiated, favoured appeasement: to give Germany its reasonable demands, with reasonable assurances for reasonable protections of the rights of the ethnic minorities in those regions. The fate of political oppositionists in Memel, Gdansk, the Suddeten, or Austria, was of minimal concern - after all, those people were in great part already subjected to brutal dictatorial regimes, like those of Dolfuss/Schuschnnig, Bock/Pilsudsky, or Smetona, and that was considered pretty normal.

Those who thought that the German demands, reasonable as they were, were just a part of an expansionist strategy, which could be much more ambitious than the mere political reunification of German ethnicity, opposed appeasement, and proposed stronger diplomacy - of which, of course, threats of war were an integral part. Those people were not visionaries - Hitler himself had extensively written about his strategy, and made no secret of the fate he intended to impose into the Slavic or otherwise non-German populations of Eastern Europe.

And so, the Sudetten crisis was to be the watershed moment that finally cleared which of those political currents was correct. Austrians were for the most part happy to be anschlussed - and those who weren't, either were, like Communists and Socialdemocrats, already being repressed under Austria's own national government, or, like Schuschnigg's loyalists, didn't attract much sympathy, as they were the ones doing such repression. Czechoslovakia was different - it was a democracy, and its inhabitants weren't German or happy with German domination. Hitler promised to annex the Sudetten but to otherwise respect Czechoslovakia's independence. He broke that promise and invaded and subjected the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, showing in practice that he wouldn't be stopped by diplomacy and that his politics wasn't merely a politics of unifying ethnic Germans.

Now, Czechoslovakia had a quite formidable defensive line in the Suddeten. While they obviously could not counter-attack and invade Germany, they could have set up fierce resistance, much more than Poland did. The terrain is difficult, not the plains and prairies of Poland, and Czechoslovakian fortifications were strong and modern. This point shows, I think, the extent of Chamberlain's mistakes. If he was intent to rearm Britain for a future war, then he shouldn't allow the Germans to remove the Czechoslovakian defensive line, leaving the poor republic defenceless when the following, predictable, onslaught came. He was really deluded about Hitler's intentions and strategies.

Only then public opinion turned against appeasement. That would be the precise moment when Chamberlain could have been ousted. But Chamberlain himself recognised that we was wrong, and changed his mind on the possibility of containing Hitler through diplomacy. He was weakened by the blunder, and Churchill, who had opposed the policy, was strengthened. But it didn't cost Chamberlain his leadership within the Tories, and he remained prime minister. The moment of his possible fall had passed. When the invasion of Poland came, Chamberlain was no longer defending a policy of appeasement - and indeed his government immeadiately declared war on Germany, as it had promised before. And so, there was no particular reason why Chamberlain would be ousted in September 1939. He survived the crisis of March, when Hitler occupied "Bohemia and Moravia"; he was not to survive the crisis of the failure to defend Norway. But there was no particular British internal crisis due to the invasion of Poland.

What ensued was the drôle de guerre - the inaction of the allies in the Western Front, while the Wehrmacht slaughtered Poland. This was another wrong policy, but it cannot be blamed upon Chamberlain alone; any action would have to be started from French territory, and the French government, not Chamberlain, was the main culprit of the drôle de guerre.

His fall came with the invasion of Denmark and Norway, not because the British public opinion realised that war was unavoidable, but because it realised the war was iminent, and that the invasion of France, and probably Belgium and the Netherlands, was a matter of days. Thence Chamberlain lost his position, not directly as a punishment for appeasement or drôle de guerre, but because it was consensual that all main parties should be included in government, and Churchill was by far more acceptable to Labour (and Liberals, though that probably didn't matter as much).

Luckacs' two books on the subject (The Duel: 10 May–31 July 1940: the Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler and Five Days in London, May 1940) are a good read, mapping quite well the positions of Churchil and Chamberlain (and Labour's. And Halifax's - whose dellusions seem to have been more persistent than Chamberlain's) during the crisis that lead to the fall of France.

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    This first paragraph rests on the assumption that politicians tell the truth. It is clear from his statements that he wanted to give the impression that he believed it was possible to stop Hitler with concessions. That is why his actions from 1934 onwards, which diverge from those statements, matter in trying to understand his actual belief. Later, "Only then, public opinion turned..." This, I think, is key. Why did it turn? And why especially in Britain or W Europe while America remained unmoved? My opinion again, but I think the very public betrayal of "Peace In Our Time" was vital. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 14:35
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    @BrianDrummond - The seventh paragraph - starting with "Now, Czechoslovakia..." explains why it should be assumed he was telling the truth, on this subject, up to the end of the Czechoslovakia crisis. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 17:14

English lad here. Some people won't like the actual reason why Chamberlain remained Prime Minister. But here it is: The British - certainly the English - people didn't actually have a problem with the National Socialists. It's only when they started on us that we came to hate them.

You need to realise that we were a 100% White, and strongly-Nationalist nation back then.

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    This could do with some citations, to demonstrate its correctness and its relevance to the situation being asked about. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 14:49
  • -1 for the broad generalized statement without supporting evidence. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 14:00

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