At dawn on Friday, 10 May 1940, Adolf Hitler plunged his bloody fists into the Low Countries and headed for France; at 5:00 PM that same evening, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain. The new Prime Minister felt confident of victory then, but the French high command had made a grave miscalculation. Believing that the enemy would be coming through Belgium, as in 1914, the sixty-seven-year-old generalissimo Maurice Gamelin had sent the flower of the French troops and the entire British army?the British Expeditionary Force, or B.E.F. into Flanders. Instead, Nazi tanks struck through Ardennes Forest and crossed the Meuse. When the French defenders panicked, the panzers rolled up the entire Allied line all the way to the sea, trapping the Allies' force.
On the fifth day of the enemy offensive, the extent of the disaster began to emerge. Paul Reynaud, the French Premier, wired Churchill: "The German army has broken through our fortified lines south of Sedan." He then asked for ten more Royal Air Force squadrons "immediately." The Prime Minister sent four squadrons, then decided it was "imperative to go to Paris." At 3:00 PM on May 16th, he took off in an unarmed Flamingo, a civilian passenger plane, accompanied by Generals Hastings Ismay and Sir John Dill and his bodyguard Walter Thompson, an inspector from Scotland Yard.
Over the French coast Churchill peered down, and Thompson saw his face go grey. He was looking, for the first time, at the war's refugees. There were seven million of them fleeing from the Germans, swarming down the highways, shuffling, exhausted, aching from the strain of heavy loads on their backs. Barns, sheds, and garages had vomited into roads an extraordinary collection of vehicles: tumbrels, trucks, horse-drawn carts, and ancient automobiles with sagging loads of mattresses, kitchen utensils, family treasures, and bric-a-brac. Churchill later wrote: "Not having had access to official information for so many years, I did not comprehend the revolution effected since the last war by the incursion of a mass of fast-moving heavy armour." This German drive would not have to pause for supplies. As Charles de Gaulle had foreseen, the panzers would be filling their tanks at the filling stations of northern France.