Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Resignation Letter to King George VI, Summing Up His War-Time Accomplishments and Ending One of the Finest Hours in World History

Likely the most important letter of Churchill to have ever reached the market, written from Prime Minister to King, showing Churchill discussing the “not inglorious” conduct of his ministry and the complete defeat of Germany, assessing his own legacy and looking to the future

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This just weeks after the Nazis surrendered, marking the successful Churchill-inspired comeback that saved civilization


“He therefore asks Your Majesty to accord him an audience at some time convenient to Your Majesty tomorrow morning, in order that he may tender his resignation of the various Offices which he now holds, and...

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Resignation Letter to King George VI, Summing Up His War-Time Accomplishments and Ending One of the Finest Hours in World History

Likely the most important letter of Churchill to have ever reached the market, written from Prime Minister to King, showing Churchill discussing the “not inglorious” conduct of his ministry and the complete defeat of Germany, assessing his own legacy and looking to the future

This just weeks after the Nazis surrendered, marking the successful Churchill-inspired comeback that saved civilization


“He therefore asks Your Majesty to accord him an audience at some time convenient to Your Majesty tomorrow morning, in order that he may tender his resignation of the various Offices which he now holds, and thus bring the present not inglorious Administration to a dignified end in accordance with the highest constitutional traditions and practice.”

If you are looking for a turning point in the history of the world, look no farther than Winston Churchill’s first stewardship as Prime Minister from 1940-1945. It was then the man re-channelled the course of history by standing in the way of the seemingly victorious juggernaut of Naziism, and in doing so made possible the Allied victory in World War II.

As Churchill saw clearly and told the House of Commons in his first speech as Prime Minister, “without victory there is no survival”. The nation rallied around him; but it had not always been so. For six years, Churchill’s had been a voice in the wilderness, crying out against the mortal danger posed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. However, Great Britain was lost in a pipe-dream of peace, and Churchill was ignored and even scorned. Then the first wave of German military might overwhelmed Poland in September 1939, and Churchill was revealed as a prophet rather than a Cassandra. After a quiet winter, in April 1940 the Nazis smashed into Denmark and Norway, followed shortly by invasions of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In early May, as Norway tottered and the prospects for Britain became worse than bleak, elements in both the country’s major parties revolted against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s management of the war. Members of Chamberlain’s own Conservative Party were insistent on a change of leadership, with Leopold Amery, on the floor of the House of Commons, quoting from Cromwell and saying: “Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” Chamberlain was naturally shaken by this and reluctantly agreed to resign. Some Conservatives initially promoted Lord Halifax as his successor, as in fact did King George VI. However, as the only leader not tainted by the disastrous appeasement policies of the 1930’s, it was obvious that Churchill alone could unite the nation. Moreover, the Labour Party, for all its old distrust of Churchill’s anti-socialist stand, recognized the depth of his commitment to the defeat of Hitler and insisted on him. Churchill was named Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, and he formed a coalition government that included all elements save the far left and right and the nationalist parties. Churchill himself took, in addition to the leadership of the House of Commons, the Ministry of Defense, thus emphasizing his concentration on the conduct of the war. This was the great coalition government that won the war.

Churchill later wrote of this moment, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…” From that moment his life and career became one with Britain’s story and its survival. In late May came two great tests. In the first, serious and influential voices in Britain wanted to begin negotiations to end a war that showed every sign of being lost. That seemed an alluring prospect to some, but Churchill saw it as just another road to disaster and turned back that revolt, saying to a cheering cabinet: “I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” The second challenge was the apparent loss of the entire British Army in France, but the army was successfully extricated and saved by the operation at Dunkirk that Churchill was instrumental in bringing off.

France fell in June 1940, and on July 16 Hitler ordered the preparation of a plan to invade Britain. From July to September 1940 all waited tensely for the expected German invasion of Britain to begin, as the Battle of Britain was fought to secure air supremacy in the skies above the south of England. By mid-September it was clear that the RAF had denied the Luftwaffe the control the Germans needed to cross the English Channel, and the Nazi leaders decided to concentrate instead on bombing cities to pound the British people into submission. For months in succession the cities of Britain suffered night after night of air terror, and while the cities were being destroyed the people sought safety in air raid shelters, and in London, in Underground (subway) stations. This bombing of the civilian population came to be known as the Blitz. In October, being pounded by the unrelenting air assault, Churchill and his government moved to the underground cabinet war rooms. In November, Coventry was destroyed; still the bombing continued. Then Hitler decided to break his non-aggression treaty with Russia, and in May 1941, in preparation for the invasion of Russia, the bombings of British cities were tapered off. Roughly 43,000 Britains had been killed and two million made homeless by those bombings.

During all this, Churchill’s task was to inspire resistance at all costs, to organize the defense of the island, and to make it the bastion for an eventual return to the continent of Europe. To do this, he needed to breathe a new spirit into the government and a new resolve into the people. His magnificent oratory, his immense confidence, and his stubborn refusal to accept anything but total victory, did just that, and rallied the nation, particularly during the dark days between 1940 and the turn of the tide in 1943.

The speeches he made in accomplishing this are classics and among the most moving and important ever made in the English language. In his first blunt talk to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, he stated, “You ask, what is our policy? I can 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…” In his first speech as Prime Minister, he told the British people, “We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all – to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. If this is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain, it is also beyond doubt the most sublime.” After the Dunkirk withdrawal he knew “there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means.”

On June 4, he famously pledged himself and the nation to resist the coming German invasion: “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Then on June 18, after France fell, he told the House and British people: “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own 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 in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free…” In finishing he urged them on in the struggle, and prophetically defined how they would be remembered in history, saying: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and 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’.”

Churchill’s words effectively inspired the people and led ultimately to victory in the war. He himself denied that he deserved the credit for Britain’s epochal performance in standing alone against the Nazis, saying “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.” Yet that is only a half truth, as historian Isaiah Berlin points out in his article, “Churchill in 1940.” Writing of the type of emotion Churchill felt for the people of Great Britain, Berlin said, “He idealized them with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them…So hypnotic was the force of his words, so strong his faith, that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell upon them until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts and minds. If it was there, it was largely dormant until he had awoken it within them.”

The Strategy that won the Second World War

Meanwhile Churchill kept up the drumbeat for Britain’s salvation in the one way he knew it would surely be found – getting the United States to send aid to Britain, or even better enter the conflict. President Roosevelt saw that the U.S. had to get involved, and started by arranging for the transfer of 50 old U.S. destroyers to Britain in exchange for use of eight British Atlantic bases. Then he proposed the far more ambitious Lend-Lease plan, whereunder the U.S. would “lend” military equipment to cash-strapped Britain. Congress went along, and The Lend Lease Act was signed in March, 1941. An unspoken alliance was further molded that August by the dramatic meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in Newfoundland, which produced the Atlantic Charter, a statement of common principles between the United States and Britain. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, altered, in Churchill’s eyes, the whole prospect of the war. He went at once to Washington, and, with Roosevelt, hammered out a set of Anglo-American accords: the pooling of both countries’ military and economic resources, the establishment of unity of command in all theaters of war, and agreement on the basic strategy that the defeat of Germany should have priority over that of Japan. The grand alliance had now come into being, and Churchill could claim to be its principal architect.

Churchill’s military strategy, developed despite the resistance of many in the U.S. military, was ultimately followed and won the war on the battlefield. In 1942 the Soviets were fighting street-to-street in a death struggle with the Germans and were desperate for the Allies to attack northern France to divert some of the German pressure, and the senior American military leadership, led by Gen. George Marshall, was strongly in favor of this as well. Churchill regarded an attack on France in late 1942 (or even 1943) as premature, costly and so dangerous that it might lose the war. Instead he argued for an early, full-scale attack on “the under-belly of the Axis,” meaning North Africa and Italy. Churchill’s plan carried the day, and Allied landings in North Africa (called Operation Torch) began in late 1942. Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca in January, 1943, and it was agreed there that Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, would follow Torch, as Churchill desired. American military chiefs wanted, after Husky, to stop short of assaulting the Italian mainland and instead embark on an invasion across the English Channel against northern France late in 1943. Churchill still believed with all his heart that such a cross-channel operation was premature. He wanted the conquest of Italy to be the priority for 1943, and in May of that year went to Washington, where he argued for a cross-channel invasion in 1944 (to be called Operation Overlord). There was some American resistance to his strategy, which nonetheless prevailed. On July 9, 1943, Allied forces landed in Sicily, pursuant to Churchill’s strategy. Overlord went forward in 1944 as Churchill had strongly advocated, when on June 6 – D-Day – the Allies successfully invaded France and used that as a base for the reconquest of occupied Europe.

Butin 1944 Hitler had one last trick up his sleeve – a new rocket bomb, one that would not require an airplane to deliver it. And with this new, unheard of technology he would resume bombing of British cities, crush British morale, and terrify the other Allies into making a peace he could live with. This was the V-1 buzz bomb – the first mass-produced cruise missile. Each bomb carried a 1-ton warhead nearly 160 miles at a cruising speed of 400 mph. Nearly 10,000 V-1s and later the V-2s were launched from sites in Northern France from June 13, 1944 to March 27, 1945. Targets included London as well as other cities in southern England. At the peak of the campaign, more than 100 rockets were hitting Britain a day. Civilian casualties climbed to 22,000, with more than 6,000 fatalities. So Churchill was again called upon to aid the victims of the German bombings of London. And again Hitler’s strategy of winning the war by terror bombing of Britain was a failure. After the Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the war in Europe drew towards its end. The Germans were retreating everywhere and by spring the German ability to continue the conflict collapsed. Mussolini was killed on April 28 and Italy surrendered the next day.

The end of the Nazi peril

On April 30 Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. On May 7, 1945, Germany officially surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to the European conflict in World War II. Thus Churchill had come into office in May 1940 when all seemed hopeless, and in May 1945 had brought Britain – and the world – to a glorious victory. Perhaps never in modern history has there been a more important outcome – and more important achievement.

On May 8, Churchill told the celebrating British people: “The German war is therefore at an end. After years of intense preparation, Germany hurled herself on Poland at the beginning of September, 1939; and, in pursuance of our guarantee to Poland and in agreement with the French Republic, Great Britain, the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, declared war upon this foul aggression. After gallant France had been struck down we, from this Island and from our united Empire, maintained the struggle single-handed for a whole year until we were joined by the military might of Soviet Russia, and later by the overwhelming power and resources of the United States of America. Finally almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us.”

Some 40 million people died in the European Theater, and the liberated concentration camps graphically showed what the Nazi were capable of. The catastrophe that would have been a Nazi victory can barely be imagined, and Churchill can be credited with denying them that victory.

The Churchill Coalition Ministry comes to an end

There had not been a general election in Britain since 1935, as general elections had been suspended during the war. In May 1945, with the Nazis having surrendered, and the Japanese war clearly coming to an end, the atmosphere in Britain changed and people began to look to the post-war world. Churchill offered to continue the wartime coalition with Labor and the Liberals until the defeat of Japan. Labor leader Clement Attlee, whose insistence that Labor would only support Churchill had been instrumental in Churchill’s elevation to the prime ministership, and who in the coalition government was Deputy Prime Minister refused, arguing that the end of the war was nigh, and after ten years without an election, it was time to test the public mood. He told Churchill that he and his party would leave the coalition, and that they favored an election in October. On May 22, 1945, Churchill twice wrote Attlee, once expressing his regret “that you reject my proposal,” and then maintaining that an October election meant five months electioneering while there was a war to win – that it “might soon weaken the country.” He continued, saying that “It is not good for any country…to live so long under the spell of a General Election”. He rejected the idea of waiting until October for an election. Churchill, seeing that the coalition was breaking up, quite reasonably thought that the sooner he could call an election, the better it would be his Conservatives Party’s chances. With few exceptions, politicians and commentators confidently predicted that he would lead his party to a huge victory.

Later that same day he again wrote Attlee, this time simply informing him that “I propose to tender my resignation to the King tomorrow, May 23, at noon”, and saying that if the King asked him to form a caretaker government to serve until the election, he would do so without his coalition partners. These were, then, the preliminaries to the event itself – the resignation of Winston Churchill and the end of his wartime coalition ministry, the most successful and impactful governance in modern history.

The Resignation letter, characterizing his Administration as “not inglorious”

Now he wrote to the King stating he was tendering his resignation and winding up his victorious Ministry, and asking for an audience the following day to do so. This is Churchill’s retained draft, salvaged from the dust bin by his industrious secretary who had an eye for history. The letter is four pages, the first one of which, taken from the original carbon copy, has been kindly supplied to us by the Churchill Papers; and the final three pages, including Churchill’s holograph, are exactly as he saw them, edited them, and signed then that day in 1945. The copy presented to the King would be in the royal archives.

Interestingly, although the letter asks for a meeting with the King in order to tender his resignation, we can state, in a conclusion shared by the Churchill Archives, that no subsequent resignation letter was presented to the King at that meeting. That resignation was oral. This, then, is Churchill’s actual and only resignation letter to the King.

Typed letter signed, as Prime Minister, London, May 22, 1945, to King George VI, the monarch that stood at Churchill’s side throughout the war. Churchill asks him to accept his resignation, dissolve the wartime coalition government that had been in place since May 1940, and call a general election. Crucially, it also contains his characterization of his Ministry, and is thus of monumental importance. The letter starts by saying that he is the King’s servant: “Mr. Churchill, with his humble duty to The King, has the honour to submit certain letters which have passed between him and the leaders of the other parties in the National Government,” and then mentions the impact the potential election was having on that government. He informs the King that he had hoped to extend the coalition government until after the Japanese war ends, but has been unable to persuade the other coalition members “to take this course, upon which he has lavished his utmost endeavors.” He mentions the Labor Party’s desire for an October election, but “Mr. Churchill sees insuperable objections to this proposal. By it we should be condemned to between four and five months of uncertainty and electioneering hanging over the whole business of Government and Administration, both at home and abroad.”

Churchill then proceeds in a masterpiece of understatement to state that “Your Majesty’s affairs are now in a much better posture than they were when the National Government was formed,” emphasizes this success as having “been gained at such sacrifice and hazard,” and then worries it “may all be thrown away” in infighting over the election.

He next runs his attention to the future and the difficulties yet to be faced, while comparing them to facing Hitler. “The whole vast process of transformation of industry from war to peace, and of demobilizing the Armies while at the same time forming the largest possible forces to be sent to the Far East, as well as that of getting our trade and industry on the move again, constitutes a task which, though not so deadly as some which we have surmounted, is in some respects more difficult because more complicated.” These tasks can “only be undertaken by a united Government possessing the undisputed confidence of the people… Mr. Churchill cannot feel that he could assure Your Majesty that conditions of amity and single-mindedness would prevail in the present Administration during the political disturbances which the approach of a General Election entails. It would be no service to the nation to go forward with a pretense of union which had in fact lapsed with the attainment of complete victory over Germany. Mr. Churchill is convinced that he could not conscientiously continue to head such an Administration…” So here he has set the stage for resigning while at the same time clearly celebrating the “complete victory over Germany” that he did so much to bring about.

He now informs the King of his resignation, and characterizes his Ministry as history would see it – glorious. “He therefore asks Your Majesty to accord him an audience at some time convenient to Your Majesty tomorrow morning, in order that he may tender his resignation of the various Offices which he now holds, and thus bring the present not inglorious Administration to a dignified end in accordance with the highest constitutional traditions and practice.” He ends with an handwritten salutation: “And with his humble duty remains Your Majesty’s faithful & devoted servant & subject, Winston S. Churchill.”

Churchill has marked the draft with places he wanted paragraph breaks, and the carbon of the presented copy shows those breaks have been inserted. A few other revisions he requested have been made as well. It is particularly interesting to note that he changed his characterization of the dangers he had confronted from “though not so deadly as some through which we have passed” to “though not so deadly as some which we have surmounted”, choosing the active verb to describe his accomplishments.

On May 23 Churchill took the car to Buckingham Palace at noon and orally confirmed his resignation. The King asked Churchill to continue at the head of a predominantly Conservative ‘caretaker’ government for the duration of the election campaign, and Churchill agreed. Campaigning rather than wartime leadership became the order of the day, and Churchill suddenly found himself without a clear sense of purpose or direction. Polling took place on July 5, but in order to allow time for the ballot boxes to be collected from servicemen overseas, the count did not begin until July 25. The Conservative Party election campaign was built around the personality of Churchill, on whom there fell almost the entire responsibility of presenting the Conservative case. In contrast, Attlee offered peace and prosperity at home. The Labour Party’s policies – geared towards social reform, workers’ rights, housing, low unemployment, and ‘cradle-to-grave’ healthcare – ultimately proved more attractive than the Conservative Party’s argument that such changes were not affordable. Labor surprisingly swept the election, and on July 26 Churchill was replaced by Attlee.

The Judgement of history

Churchill once said, ”History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Although he meant with his pen, in fact he did write it with his leadership. And time seems only to increase appreciation of his first term as Prime Minister, which has increasingly caught the public imagination. His letters from that period have just about dried up on the market. It is safe to say that they are now uncommon, and all the more so with content relating to his legacy. This is among the most important pieces we have ever carried – the concluding act to one of the greatest dramas in history.

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