When Winston Churchill walked into the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, he had much to discuss. The Allies had just pulled off the “miracle of Dunkirk,” rescuing some 338,000 troops from a dire situation in France. But this victory was a hollow one. The soldiers were only saved thanks to a curious halt order from the German command, and the Nazis were just days away from entering Paris. Churchill knew he had to prepare his people for the possible fall of France. He also knew he had to send a message to a reluctant ally across the pond.
I have said this armored scythe-stroke almost reached Dunkirk-almost but not quite. Boulogne and Calais were the scenes of desperate fighting. The Guards defended Boulogne for a while and were then withdrawn by orders from this country. The Rifle Brigade, the 60th Rifles, and the Queen Victoria’s Rifles, with a battalion of British tanks and 1,000 Frenchmen, in all about four thousand strong, defended Calais to the last. The British Brigadier was given an hour to surrender. He spurned the offer, and four days of intense street fighting passed before silence reigned over Calais, which marked the end of a memorable resistance. Only 30 unwounded survivors were brought off by the Navy, and we do not know the fate of their comrades. Their sacrifice, however, was not in vain. At least two armored divisions, which otherwise would have been turned against the British Expeditionary Force, had to be sent to overcome them. They have added another page to the glories of the light divisions, and the time gained enabled the Graveline water lines to be flooded and to be held by the French troops.
In November 1915 Churchill resigned from the government and returned to soldiering, seeing active service in France as lieutenant colonel of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. Although he entered the service with zest, army life did not give full scope for his talents. In June 1916, when his battalion was merged, he did not seek another command but instead returned to Parliament as a private member. He was not involved in the intrigues that led to the formation of a coalition government under Lloyd George, and it was not until 1917 that the Conservatives would consider his inclusion in the government. In March 1917 the publication of the Dardanelles commission report demonstrated that he was at least no more to blame for the fiasco than his colleagues.
Rather, he gave it in the House of Commons, beginning at 3.40 pm and sitting down at 4.14. By contrast with some later occasions – notably his ‘finest hour’ speech of 18 June – he did not repeat it over the airwaves that evening. The thought simply does not seem to have occurred to him or to anyone else. Instead, a BBC announcer read sections of it during the nightly news. You have, of course, heard him delivering it, but he did not make that recording until 1949, when he was persuaded to do so for the benefit of posterity.
I really wish we had leaders like this in our time. Churchill lead England through a brutal period of a year and a half when nobody was standing against Hitler in Europe. He never sugar coated things. He believed absolutely in what he had to do, and more importantly, he explained things clearly to people and made them understand that he needed them. Just check out his speechs during the Battle of Britain. He drives you with his words, spurring his listeners to action.
This speech made famous the notion of the “Iron Curtain”. Furthermore it defined the parameters of the Cold War. So powerful were Churchill’s words that President Truman had to distance himself from his remarks amid their international notoriety. Yet the speech also outlined the rationale for the “Special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Together, Britain and the US adopted a deep opposition to Communism and, and as a result, it virtually shaped the rest of the rest of the 20th century.
Once the decision had been made, Churchill was Overlord’s fierce advocate. He reveled in the tactics and gadgets that characterized the greatest amphibious operation yet attempted—he was especially taken with the Mulberry portable harbors. He also informed Eisenhower of his intention to observe the landings from a British cruiser. The supreme commander replied that Churchill was far too valuable to risk and prohibited it. Churchill calmly replied that as a British citizen he would sign on aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, whereupon Eisenhower’s headquarters contacted Buckingham Palace. King George thereupon called Churchill, declaring that if the prime minister went to Normandy, the monarch could do no less. Churchill relented.
I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.
Here is where we come to the Navy--and after all, we have a Navy. Some people seem to forget that we have a Navy. We must remind them. For the last thirty years I have been concerned in discussions about the possibilities of oversea invasion, and I took the responsibility on behalf of the Admiralty, at the beginning of the last war, of allowing all regular troops to be sent out of the country. That was a very serious step to take, because our Territorials had only just been called up and were quite untrained. Therefore, this Island was for several months particularly denuded of fighting troops. The Admiralty had confidence at that time in their ability to prevent a mass invasion even though at that time the Germans had a magnificent battle fleet in the proportion of 10 to 16, even though they were capable of fighting a general engagement every day and any day, whereas now they have only a couple of heavy ships worth speaking of--the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. We are also told that the Italian Navy is to come out and gain sea superiority in these waters. If they seriously intend it, I shall only say that we shall be delighted to offer Signor Mussolini a free and safeguarded passage through the Strait of Gibraltar in order that he may play the part to which he aspires. There is a general curiosity in the British Fleet to find out whether the Italians are up to the level they were at in the last war or whether they have fallen off at all.
This speech made famous the notion of the “Iron Curtain”. Furthermore it defined the parameters of the Cold War. So powerful were Churchill’s words that President Truman had to distance himself from his remarks amid their international notoriety. Yet the speech also outlined the rationale for the “Special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Together, Britain and the US adopted a deep opposition to Communism and, and as a result, it virtually shaped the rest of the rest of the 20th century.

Goodnight then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn. Vive la France! Long live also the forward march of the common people in all the lands towards their just and true inheritance, and towards the broader and fuller age.
Lord Randolph Churchill was a charismatic politician who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His title was a courtesy title only, and therefore was not inherited by his eldest son, Winston Churchill. In 1885, he had formulated the policy of progressive Conservatism which was known as “Tory Democracy”. He declared that the Conservatives ought to adopt, rather than oppose, popular reforms, and to challenge the claims of the Liberals to pose as champions of the masses.
In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!
After you have read all the incredible Churchill quotes (Never have so many owed so much to so few) and read the story of his life and a few overviews of World War II, it's time to listen to the whole speeches. Yes, he was long-winded and sometimes sounded tipsy and had an alarming lisp. Yes, they could have arranged these in date order, and should have. But you can and should arrange them that way. The quality is not perfect and probably could be better, even for these old recordings. But ... Listened to in order, you get the almost despair of Dunkirk, the Blitz, the "end of the beginning," the barely supressed glee at Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S.A. into the war, the devastation of the post-war election, and the full iron curtain speech with Harry Truman in attendance. You wish he would get on with it, you think "Oh, this is none of his tropes," and then he makes you want to stand up, wave a flag and cheer. It jars the ear in our time to hear him exhorting "our race" and extolling the British Empire, but if you can stomach that, it's wonderful stuff. The real deal. The UK was lucky to have him in WWII. We speakers of English will forever wish that he could lead us again. "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.'" (June 18, 1940.)
On June 18, 1940, Churchill attempted to lift up England following the fall of France and the successful evacuation of most of England’s supporting forces from the continent. At the moment of great apparent danger to British national survival, he spoke not only of endurance but of noble causes of which Britain was fighting (freedom, Christian civilization, the rights of small nations): “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.’” The speech lasted thirty-six minutes. The final passage of his typescript was laid out in blank verse format, which historians believe shows the influence of the Old Testament psalms on Churchill’s oratorical style.
Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), 8 May 1945. In a speech to them, he declared: 'God bless you all. This is your victory!' The crowd roared back, 'No - it is yours'. For Churchill, nothing would match his wartime triumphs. What came afterwards would be 'all anticlimax' as he later wrote in his war memoirs.
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.33), Gramophone (C3198) [issued as part of Gramophone Album The Progress of the War, No. 348], BBC, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, Caedmon TC 2065, Decca 5, London XL.10, Caedmon TC 2018; Tape: BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, Enlightenment, SpeechWorks, ProArte
Muller says that the lecture commenced with full "pomp and ceremony," and both Churchill and Truman received honorary degrees from the school, according to National Churchill Museum chief curator Timothy Riley. According to contemporary coverage of the event in the New York Times, a crowd of 8,000 Fulton residents turned up, along with 20,000 visitors "from as far distant as St. Louis."
Accumulation of Argument. Today’s business presentations are defined as the slide deck. But the deck is more often than not shuffled like a pack of cards at a gaming table in Las Vegas—which results in fragmentation and, ultimately, disruption of the story. When you shuffle your deck (and you know you will) be sure to maintain the logic of your flow.
Anyone can see what the position is. The Government simply cannot make up their mind, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years – precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britian – for the locusts to eat.
Even so, Churchill’s appointment as minister of munitions in July 1917 was made in the face of a storm of Tory protest. Excluded from the cabinet, Churchill’s role was almost entirely administrative, but his dynamic energies thrown behind the development and production of the tank (which he had initiated at the Admiralty) greatly speeded up the use of the weapon that broke through the deadlock on the Western Front. Paradoxically, it was not until the war was over that Churchill returned to a service department. In January 1919 he became secretary of war. As such he presided with surprising zeal over the cutting of military expenditure. The major preoccupation of his tenure in the War Office was, however, the Allied intervention in Russia. Churchill, passionately anti-Bolshevik, secured from a divided and loosely organized cabinet an intensification and prolongation of the British involvement beyond the wishes of any major group in Parliament or the nation—and in the face of the bitter hostility of labour. And in 1920, after the last British forces had been withdrawn, Churchill was instrumental in having arms sent to the Poles when they invaded the Ukraine.
From the moment that the French defenses at Sedan and on the Meuse were broken at the end of the second week of May, only a rapid retreat to Amiens and the south could have saved the British and French Armies who had entered Belgium at the appeal of the Belgian King; but this strategic fact was not immediately realized. The French High Command hoped they would be able to close the gap, and the Armies of the north were under their orders. Moreover, a retirement of this kind would have involved almost certainly the destruction of the fine Belgian Army of over 20 divisions and the abandonment of the whole of Belgium. Therefore, when the force and scope of the German penetration were realized and when a new French Generalissimo, General Weygand, assumed command in place of General Gamelin, an effort was made by the French and British Armies in Belgium to keep on holding the right hand of the Belgians and to give their own right hand to a newly created French Army which was to have advanced across the Somme in great strength to grasp it.
At the outbreak of World War II, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in command of the Royal Navy. At the same time the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wanted to appease Germany and Hitler. Churchill knew this would not work and warned the government that they needed to help fight Hitler or Hitler would soon take over all of Europe.
Matthews is right to suggest that Churchill re-recorded the ‘Finest Hour’ speech in 1949.(3) He also makes a valuable point about the variant versions floating around, and about the lack of care that broadcasters have exercised over the years. The post-war history of the speeches is certainly a very interesting issue, and my reference to it, it is true, is buried in a footnote (p. 252, n.173). It is certainly a topic deserving of more extensive treatment, but examining it in the book would not have materially altered my findings about the speeches’ contemporary reception. This may, however, be a good moment to own up to a genuine error, which was kindly drawn to my attention by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre. The book makes the clear suggestion that Churchill broadcast his famous 20 August 1940 speech which referred to ‘The Few’, having earlier given it in the House of Commons (pp. 69, 231). This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that he did so. But having heard the recording of it he made later, I gave into the powerful sense that somehow he ‘must’ have delivered it on the radio at the time. This, I think, is strong testimony to the cognitive dissonance generated when familiar historical myth collides with historical fact, even when one is doing one’s utmost to be hard-headed.
War came as no surprise to Churchill. He had already held a test naval mobilization. Of all the cabinet ministers he was the most insistent on the need to resist Germany. On August 2, 1914, on his own responsibility, he ordered the naval mobilization that guaranteed complete readiness when war was declared. The war called out all of Churchill’s energies. In October 1914, when Antwerp was falling, he characteristically rushed in person to organize its defense. When it fell the public saw only a disillusioning defeat, but in fact the prolongation of its resistance for almost a week enabled the Belgian Army to escape and the crucial Channel ports to be saved. At the Admiralty, Churchill’s partnership with Adm. Sir John Fisher, the first sea lord, was productive both of dynamism and of dissension. In 1915, when Churchill became an enthusiast for the Dardanelles expedition as a way out of the costly stalemate on the Western Front, he had to proceed against Fisher’s disapproval. The campaign aimed at forcing the straits and opening up direct communications with Russia. When the naval attack failed and was called off on the spot by Adm. J.M. de Robeck, the Admiralty war group and Asquith both supported de Robeck rather than Churchill. Churchill came under heavy political attack, which intensified when Fisher resigned. Preoccupied with departmental affairs, Churchill was quite unprepared for the storm that broke about his ears. He had no part at all in the maneuvers that produced the first coalition government and was powerless when the Conservatives, with the sole exception of Sir William Maxwell Aitken (soon Lord Beaverbrook), insisted on his being demoted from the Admiralty to the duchy of Lancaster. There he was given special responsibility for the Gallipoli Campaign (a land assault at the straits) without, however, any powers of direction. Reinforcements were too few and too late; the campaign failed and casualties were heavy; evacuation was ordered in the autumn.

In the five years that followed, Churchill’s early liberalism survived only in the form of advocacy of rigid laissez-faire economics; for the rest he appeared, repeatedly, as the leader of the diehards. He had no natural gift for financial administration, and though the noted economist John Maynard Keynes criticized him unsparingly, most of the advice he received was orthodox and harmful. His first move was to restore the gold standard, a disastrous measure, from which flowed deflation, unemployment, and the miners’ strike that led to the general strike of 1926. Churchill offered no remedy except the cultivation of strict economy, extending even to the armed services. Churchill viewed the general strike as a quasi-revolutionary measure and was foremost in resisting a negotiated settlement. He leaped at the opportunity of editing the British Gazette, an emergency official newspaper, which he filled with bombastic and frequently inflammatory propaganda. The one relic of his earlier radicalism was his partnership with Neville Chamberlain as minister of health in the cautious expansion of social services, mainly in the provision of widows’ pensions.
Other painful and more debatable decisions fell to Churchill. The French fleet was attacked to prevent its surrender intact to Hitler. A heavy commitment was made to the concentrated bombing of Germany. At the height of the invasion threat, a decision was made to reinforce British strength in the eastern Mediterranean. Forces were also sent to Greece, a costly sacrifice; the evacuation of Crete looked like another Gallipoli, and Churchill came under heavy fire in Parliament.
When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armored vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past-not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:

After the Allied successes in the Mediterranean, Churchill's American allies made known their desire to come to grips with Hitler's armies in northwest Europe in a series of additional wartime conferences. These began with the TRIDENT meeting in Washington in May 1943 and culminated in the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in Teheran, Iran, at year's end. At the conclusion of the Teheran meeting the Americans and Soviets had overridden Churchill's lingering doubts and had secured a firm commitment to launch a cross-Channel attack in northwest France by the late spring of 1944, together with a supporting amphibious operation in southern France. Related Objects
In this speech, Churchill had to describe a great military disaster, and warn of a possible invasion attempt by the Nazis, without casting doubt on eventual victory. He also had to prepare his domestic audience for France's falling out of the war without in any way releasing France to do so, and wished to reiterate a policy and an aim unchanged – despite the intervening events – from his speech of 13 May, in which he had declared the goal of "victory, however long and hard the road may be".
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
Despite Churchill’s meticulous preparation for his speeches, he soon realized – following “a complete disaster” – that learning them by heart was not enough. In the spring of 1904, as he moved further and further away from his old Tory colleagues, his House of Commons experiences were tense and difficult. He became an increasingly isolated figure. On 22 April, making a speech in favour of improving trades union rights, he had been speaking for 45 minutes, without notes as usual, when he forgot his words. He struggled vainly for what he later called “the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life”, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, distraught. Some believed him to be displaying early signs of the same mental decline from which his father Lord Randolph had suffered, and saw this as an appallingly public display of weakening mental faculties. His breakdown was met with jeers from some Tory members, but also with sympathy by others.
Clementine Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill (wife) Diana Churchill (daughter) Randolph Churchill (son) Sarah Churchill (daughter) Marigold Churchill (daughter) Mary Soames, Baroness Soames (daughter) Lord Randolph Churchill (father) Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill (mother) Jack Churchill (brother) Descendants John Spencer-Churchill (grandfather) Frances Anne Spencer-Churchill (grandmother) Leonard Jerome (grandfather)
English: Yalta summit in February 1945 with (from left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Also present are USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (far left); Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, RN, Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal, RAF, (standing behind Churchill); George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, (standing behind Roosevelt).
My mistake, however, highlights an important point. In my view, the correct procedure is to build up the story of the speeches from the surviving contemporary evidence, however problematic it may be. Others however – and I fear that Matthews falls within this category – take what we ‘know’ about the impact of Churchill’s speeches as a starting point and then seek to explain away all the evidence that conflicts with it. If we are to reach a full understanding of the complexity of Churchill as a historical figure, and the true sources of his rhetorical strength, we need to begin by rescuing him from the well-intentioned reductionism of his latter-day admirers.

Truman might have understood the dark intentions of the Soviet Union, but many leading American liberals, such as FDR’s former vice president, Henry Wallace, and his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, still affectionately referred to the Communist dictator Stalin as “good old Uncle Joe.” It was difficult for Americans, in the space of a few months, to go from regarding the Soviet Union as our ally in war to a potentially lethal enemy. Much of the liberal press was trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Britain, while rightwing isolationists opposed any long-term American alliance with European nations.
For Churchill to maintain optimism of British victory in the darkest days of World War II required a sense of hope that appeared to civilians and advisors to border on lunacy. In September 1940, German bombers began to appear over London. Hitler changed tactics in his attempt to subdue Great Britain. In the previous two months, the Luftwaffe targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in order to weaken the nation to the point that he could launch a German invasion. When he realized such an offensive launch was impossible, because it would deplete too much manpower from the Eastern front, he switched to a campaign of fear and intimidation. Bombing London to ruin would demoralize the population to the point of hopelessness and surrender.
×