Close this search box.

79: Darkest Hour

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee


Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.


Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

While this summer’s blockbuster film Dunkirk told the story of British and Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches around the beginning of World War II, it was told from the perspective of those hands-on in the evacuation. Behind the scenes, arguably one of the most important people involved in that was the brand new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill.

That’s who’s story gets told in Darkest Hour, with actor Gary Oldman transforming himself completely to play the role of Churchill.

Before we get to the point of Churchill becoming Prime Minister, though, let’s learn a bit more about his early days.

Winston Churchill was born on November 30th, 1874, so in just a couple weeks we’ll be celebrating his 143rd birthday.

Winston’s mother was a woman named Jeanette Jerome. She was an American, born in Brooklyn to an American investor. Known as quite a looker around social circles, in 1873, Jeanette met Lord Randolph Churchill.

He was the son of a man named John Spencer-Churchill, who was the 7th Duke of Marlborough along with John’s bride, the Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Frances Anne Emily Vane.

The young Lord Randolph Churchill and Jeanette Jerome seemed to have hit it off pretty quickly after their meeting in 1873, because on April 15th, 1874, the two were married.

Now if you’ve been paying attention to the dates here, you’ll know things might not line up in the traditional sense.

Whether or not Winston was conceived out of wedlock is something historians haven’t been able to confirm with absolute proof, but if you do the math on that, since we know little Winston was born on November 30th of that same year, that’s seven months and 15 days after Jeanette Jerome became Jeanette Jerome Churchill.

Lord Randolph Churchill and his new bride made for a great pair. He the politician and her the socialite to actively support his growing political career.

Unfortunately, this meant as he was growing up, Winston didn’t get a lot of attention from his parents. So the Churchills hired a nanny in 1875—a woman named Elizabeth Everest. By the time Winston’s brother, John, was born in 1880, for the most part, the two young boys were raised by their nanny.

Winston would later recall in his autobiography, “I loved my mother dearly—but at a distance. My nurse was my confidante.”

As a child, Winston Churchill wasn’t a great student. Perhaps that’s one reason his parents decided to send him to a private boarding school for boys. On April 17th, 1888, Winston arrived for his first day at Harrow School in London.

It didn’t really help.

By that, what I mean is that Winston still wasn’t a great student at Harrow, either. If there’s one moment that sticks out during his time at Harrow, it’d be when he managed to memorize and recite all 1,200 lines from a collection of poems by Thomas Macaulay called Lays of Ancient Rome.

He did this for a competition at Harrow and ended up getting a prize for his efforts, but looking at this event through a lens of history it was one of the first hints at the great public speaker he would become.

But, for the most part, Winston seemed to hate his time at Harrow.

If there was something he enjoyed about the school, it was when he joined the Harrow Rifle Corps. That led him to enroll in a prep program for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

As a little side note, today it’s called the Royal Military Academy.

But his poor academics almost came back to haunt him. When he applied for the Royal Military College in 1893, he failed the entrance exam. So he tried again. And again he failed. Finally, third time was the charm and he was accepted.

Of course, it might’ve helped that Winston decided to apply for cavalry instead of infantry since the requirements for cavalry required less math—the young Winston Churchill didn’t like math.

But he did like this new career path as a soldier.

Then tragedy struck.

On January 24th, 1895, Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, passed away after a slow and painful battle with syphilitic paresis.

In what must’ve been a roller coaster of emotions for him, just under a month later, on February 20th, Winston graduated from the Royal Military College 20th in a class of 130.

He received his commission to the Queen’s Royal Hussars—the Fourth Hussars, to be precise.

Winston’s military career wasn’t very long, and all throughout he wrote many reports for newspapers back home in the U.K. He served for a while in India and Sudan where he fought in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

Or, as some historians refer to that battle, a massacre.

The British forces had about 8,200 soldiers along with about 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese troops. On the other side were about 60,000 soldiers. Well, maybe using the term “soldiers” isn’t quite right. Winston Churchill would later refer to them as looking like a twelfth-century army that the British referred to as Dervishes, armed with spears and swords.

Sure, they had some guns, and they had the numbers. But the British had brought new technology to the battlefield in the form of about 40 water-cooled machine guns that could fire around 600 rounds a minute.

After about five hours, 11,000 of the Dervishes had been slaughtered, another 16,000 wounded. On the British side, only about 500 men had been killed or wounded.

Politically, this was the battle that secured the British and Egyptian hold on the region around the relatively newly-built Suez Canal.
After seeing what could’ve only been unspeakable death and destruction, Winston decided to end his military career and instead turn to the power of the written word. In 1899, he left the Army and joined the Morning Post newspaper as a war correspondent.

But his career as a war correspondent would be short-lived, too, after a brush with death.

It happened on November 15th, 1899 while he was reporting on the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa for the Morning Post. Winston joined some British troops on an armored train as it left the town of Estcourt headed north.

Only about 16 miles, or 25 kilometers, to the north of Estcourt, they passed the town of Chieveley. As the train passed Chieveley, they came across enough Boer troops that they decided to return to Estcourt.

They’d only made it about 5 miles—or 8 kilometers—back, near the town of Frere if you’re looking at it on a map, when the Boers opened fire and many of the cars on the train were derailed thanks to rocks they’d placed on the tracks.

Both sides were engaged in open gunfire when Winston helped supervise the clearing of the cars that had been damaged by derailing from the tracks. They were trying to clear the tracks enough that they could ride the engine back.

And it worked. While some of the troops provided cover, Winston and many of the wounded rode the engine back to Frere. Then, securing those men, Winston walked back to the British position.

But the Boers were too much, and the British were forced to surrender. Winston was among those captured, along with about 80 other soldiers.

He remained a prisoner for a couple months until he managed to escape by hiding on a coal train. There’s some conflicting reports about the bounty put on Winston’s head for recapture. Some reports say it was about £25—that’s roughly $3,300 in today’s U.S. dollars. Others say it was only 25 schillings—only about $160 in today’s U.S. dollars.

In either case, it wasn’t much.

After the train stopped, Winston was quite hungry. He risked exposing himself by knocking door to door in search of food.

Fortunately, behind one of those doors was a man by the name of John Howard. John was an Englishman and hid Winston, giving him food and shelter from the Boers searching for the escaped prisoner.

John helped Winston find his way out, and Winston managed to sneak back to the British Consul about 300 miles, or 480 some kilometers, away.

The next year, Winston decided to put his military career behind him and turned to politics as he became a member of Parliament.

Well…for a while, at least.

When World War I came around, Winston served as the First Lord of the Admiralty. If you’re from the U.S., that’s a position similar to the Secretary of the Navy. During the war, Winston did some good—and some not so good.

If I were to pick two extreme examples, probably one of the examples of not so good was in 1915, when Winston Churchill was one of the Allied leaders who planned an invasion of Turkey. His idea was that the invasion would help drive the Ottoman Empire out of the war. But it didn’t go so well. After about nine months of vicious fighting, some 250,000 soldiers had died on the Allied side and about the same on the Ottoman side before the Allies finally withdrew in defeat.

It was an abysmal, and costly, failure.

On the other extreme, after this failure, Winston went to the front-line as commander of the 6th Royal Scots Fusilers.

Even though there’s plenty of debate over how much choice Winston had in resigning his role in the Admiralty, this move gained Winston some credit from historians for opting to not stay safe in a political role while sending other young men to die.

However, Winston wasn’t done with politics, returning to the government before the war’s end.

After World War I, there was a brief period of peace in the world before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany changed all of that.

Looking back through the lens of history, it’s hard to understand how so many could turn a blind eye to Hitler’s rise. While there’s plenty of great podcasts and sources out there that dive deeper into exactly how that happened, for the purposes of our story today it’s important to remember that the world had just seen tens of millions of deaths in World War I.

No one was in a hurry to rush to yet another war. Diplomatic and peaceful solutions were the first thing on everyone’s minds.

Despite many disagreeing with him, Winston Churchill wasn’t sold on a diplomatic solution. In the mid-1930s, he actively pushed for a rearmament campaign in Britain.

Sadly, his preparations turned out to be needed when, as we all know, World War II broke out on September 1st, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.

Two days later, Britain officially declared war on Germany. That same day, interestingly, Winston Churchill once again appointed to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty.

If you listened to the episode about Dunkirk, you’ll know what happened next. It was a whirlwind of events that are the basis of the movie Darkest Hour.

While the German offensive was pushing back the Allied forces, back at home, Winston Churchill went from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty to becoming a member of the war cabinet to becoming the chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee. The latter of which being in April of 1940.

As the German aggression continued, support for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waned.

On May 10th, 1940, King George VI replaced Prime Minister Chamberlain. Now both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Minister of Defense, the country turned to Winston Churchill to help them in—as the movie’s title claims—their Darkest Hour.

And it’s true that things at that moment couldn’t have looked too bright.

Despite the Miracle at Dunkirk, that was a tactical retreat—it wasn’t really a strategic victory at all. It was giving up the victory today so you could survive to fight another day.

For the United Kingdom, 1940 was probably one of the darkest years in modern history. Within Winston Churchill’s lifetime, Britain had gone from one of the world’s powers to having the enemy at their doorstep—just across the English Channel.

As the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill’s knack for public speaking would come into play. That’s not to say he didn’t have some great speeches before, but I don’t think anyone can deny that Winston Churchill’s speeches played a big role in helping the British people get past some of the darkest days during the war.

And, if you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s epic film Dunkirk, you’ll know about one of the first speeches Winston Churchill gave after becoming the Prime Minister.
Commonly referred to as the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, it was actually one of three major speeches that Winston Churchill gave to Parliament during his early days as Prime Minister.

The first was on May 13th, just three days after becoming the Prime Minister. That speech is commonly called the “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. Then there was the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech that he gave on June 4th, 1940. Then a couple weeks later, on June 18th, he gave the “This was their finest hour” speech.

[/vc_column_text][vc_btn title=”GET BONUS EPISODES” align=”center” button_block=”true” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]To say it was a rocky point in history for the people of the United Kingdom is an understatement. With the unstoppable German offensive, the events at Dunkirk seemed to be a bit of silver lining.

Then the cloud darkened again for Britain.

On the heels of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain started on July 10th, 1940. That was a vicious air battle that saw German air forces clash in the skies over England with the British forces. It was…well, as the name implies, quite literally a battle for Britain.

That name, though, comes from a speech that Winston Churchill gave just days after the evacuation at Dunkirk. With the last of the troops leaving or surrendering at Dunkirk on June 4th—a day that Churchill gave another speech—on June 18th, Churchill gave yet another speech.

This time he said, “What General Weygand has called The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

And he was right.

Despite being outnumbered and despite just coming off the receiving end of the German Blitzkrieg that led to Dunkirk, those same air forces—the Luftwaffe—continued their onslaught over British soil.

The British were defending their home land. Who knows what would’ve happened had they lost.

But they didn’t.

The Battle of Britain lasted for three months and three weeks. While it was all air battles, at the time many believed the Germans would land troops on their soil. After all, why not? The Germans had proven their Blitzkrieg was unstoppable throughout their offensive in France—why stop now?

No German invasion came, and on October 31st, the Battle of Britain came to an end; the British managed a decisive victory.

It was another sliver of light for a battered, damaged and bombed country.

Then the cloud darkened yet again when, about six months after being replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain passed away. That was on November 9th, 1940, so technically five months and 30 days, just one day shy of being exactly six months.
Three days later, Winston Churchill gave yet another speech. This time in honor of Neville Chamberlain. Even though Churchill had been one of his most vocal critics when Chamberlain was Prime Minister, Churchill recognized that above all else the British people needed to stand together against the German aggression.
With one of the most difficult years coming to a close, on December 23rd, 1940, Churchill went on the offensive. Not with military might, but he broadcast a speech aimed directly to the Italian people saying things like, “We have never been your foes till now,” and, “It is all because of one man–one man and one man alone has ranged the Italian people in deadly struggle against the British Empire and has deprived Italy of the sympathy and intimacy of the United States of America.”

It was a clear campaign to start turning the loyalty of the Italian people against their leader, Benito Mussolini, who had dragged them into World War II on the side of the Nazis.

Churchill knew it wouldn’t be something that would end the war right then in 1940. He knew it was a long-term strategy and that there would be plenty more sadness and loss ahead.

But as we now know, the year 1940 was one that was a pivotal moment for the British people—but also for the world. Winston Churchill’s leadership and motivational speeches were just what the British needed to get through, as the movie’s title says, their darkest hour.



Latest episode