Churchill finally retired in 1955 at the age of eighty-one. He continued writing, speaking, and painting for the next decade, gaining additional honors. His multivolume history The Second World War received the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, but he wrote twenty other histories and biographies as well. That same year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He was made an honorary American citizen in 1963.
In the dark early days of the Second World War Churchill had few real weapons. He attacked with words instead. The speeches he delivered then are among the most powerful ever given in the English language. His words were defiant, heroic and human, lightened by flashes of humour. They reached out to everyone in Britain, across Nazi-occupied Europe, and throughout the world. As journalist Beverley Nichols wrote, 'He took the English language and sent it into battle.'
Churchill studying action reports with Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay on 28 August 1940. Ramsay would play a key role in defending against the expected German invasion. Churchill regularly worked 18-hour days. He carried on working at weekends and travelled abroad many times a year to conferences and battlefronts. He could be charming and generous but also exasperating, rude and bad-tempered. He drove his staff very hard, but he drove himself even harder.
Some people will ask why, then, was it that the British Navy was not able to prevent the movement of a large army from Germany into Norway across the Skagerrak? But the conditions in the Channel and in the North Sea are in no way like those which prevail in the Skagerrak. In the Skagerrak, because of the distance, we could give no air support to our surface ships, and consequently, lying as we did close to the enemy's main air power, we were compelled to use only our submarines. We could not enforce the decisive blockade or interruption which is possible from surface vessels. Our submarines took a heavy toll but could not, by themselves, prevent the invasion of Norway. In the Channel and in the North Sea, on the other hand, our superior naval surface forces, aided by our submarines, will operate with close and effective air assistance.
Mister Speaker, on Friday evening last I received His Majesty's commission to form a new Administration. It was the evident wish and will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties, both those who supported the late Government and also the parties of the Opposition. I have completed the most important part of this task. A War Cabinet has been formed of five Members, representing, with the Liberal Opposition, the unity of the nation. The three party Leaders have agreed to serve, either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office. The three Fighting Services have been filled. It was necessary that this should be done in one single day, on account of the extreme urgency and rigor of events. A number of other key positions were filled yesterday, and I am submitting a further list to His Majesty tonight. I hope to complete the appointment of the principal Ministers during tomorrow. The appointment of the other Ministers usually takes a little longer, but I trust that when Parliament meets again, this part of my task will be completed, and that the administration will be complete in all respects.
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.
Churchill drew on suggestions from his private secretaries, colleagues, and cabinet in the shaping of his speech. Richard Toye, in his book The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches, cites a memo from American newspaper editor William Philip Simms that appears to have been particularly influential. Simms wrote that Churchill should convey “come what may, Britain will not flinch,” and emphasized, “Give in -- NEVER!” Churchill considered comments from his cabinet that he was being too hard on France in his speech, but he was more concerned with offending American listeners, deleting a line about the United States’s “strange detachment” from the draft, erring on the side of subtlety.
From 27 May to 4 June 1940, some 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops were rescued from the channel port of Dunkirk, by a fleet ranging from small civilian pleasure boats to Navy destroyers. Churchill spoke to the British nation on 4 June. His honesty about Dunkirk being a massive defeat for the Allies won his listeners' trust, but he also used his rhetoric to inspire the British people to come to terms with their predicament and fight on. Because these words are so famous, it's often overlooked what made them so effective. By telling the British people how heroic they were going to be, he gave them no choice but to play out their parts in the script he had written, or be shamed.
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
Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British some of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to "any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States." Related Objects
In a sense, the whole of Churchill’s previous career had been a preparation for wartime leadership. An intense patriot; a romantic believer in his country’s greatness and its historic role in Europe, the empire, and the world; a devotee of action who thrived on challenge and crisis; a student, historian, and veteran of war; a statesman who was master of the arts of politics, despite or because of long political exile; a man of iron constitution, inexhaustible energy, and total concentration, he seemed to have been nursing all his faculties so that when the moment came he could lavish them on the salvation of Britain and the values he believed Britain stood for in the world.
The final speech was wide-ranging. Churchill gave a detailed recap of the Battle of Dunkirk, praising every member of the Allied forces. But he did not dwell on the lives saved. He warned that the rescue “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” Invasion, he insisted, could be imminent. But he was ready to fight.
Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches. Along with the published diaries of politicians and other officials, he has again turned to two other underutilized sources. Between May 1940 and December 1944, the Ministry of Information (MoI)’s Home Intelligence Division produced weekly reports on public reaction to, among other things, ‘ministerial broadcasts and pronouncements’ (p. 7). To that can be added the reports and, especially, the individual diaries collected by the sociological research organization, Mass-Observation (MO). Toye mines both of these rich seams of material to drive home the point that Churchill’s oratory failed to win over all of his listeners even when, as the Home Intelligence Division reported, his prestige was at ‘its highest level’. In a victory speech after El Alamein, Churchill famously told the nation ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ His masterful phrasing was not enough, however, to impress the aunt of one MO diarist. After the broadcast, she turned to her niece and remarked: ‘He’s no speaker, is he?’ (pp. 148–50)
This would present a serious difficulty if the diarists had only reported their own thoughts, but in fact they also reported the opinions of others around them. […] Of course, those who disliked Churchill may have been biased in terms of what they recorded. But, crucially, some people who did like Churchill’s speeches recorded that others didn’t, and expressed their surprise at this. Taken in combination with survey evidence – with which they often correlate – diaries can be a potent source. Although they cannot by themselves provide definitive evidence of how many people held a particular opinion about Churchill’s speeches, they do give a good illustration of the range of views that were held. (pp. 8–9)
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been lost, a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession, the whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that, and we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France. We are told that Herr Hitler has a plan for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone. “There are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.
I have thought it right upon this occasion to give the House and the country some indication of the solid, practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war. There are a good many people who say, 'Never mind. Win or lose, sink or swim, better die than submit to tyranny--and such a tyranny.' And I do not dissociate myself from them. But I can assure them that our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should carry on the war, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory. We have fully informed and consulted all the self-governing Dominions, these great communities far beyond the oceans who have been built up on our laws and on our civilization, and who are absolutely free to choose their course, but are absolutely devoted to the ancient Motherland, and who feel themselves inspired by the same emotions which lead me to stake our all upon duty and honor. We have fully consulted them, and I have received from their Prime Ministers, Mr. Mackenzie King of Canada, Mr. Menzies of Australia, Mr. Fraser of New Zealand, and General Smuts of South Africa--that wonderful man, with his immense profound mind, and his eye watching from a distance the whole panorama of European affairs--I have received from all these eminent men, who all have Governments behind them elected on wide franchises, who are all there because they represent the will of their people, messages couched in the most moving terms in which they endorse our decision to fight on, and declare themselves ready to share our fortunes and to persevere to the end. That is what we are going to do.
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.
“This was one of the most prescient strategic documents that Churchill ever wrote,” his son Randolph recorded decades later in the official biography. When Arthur Balfour, sometimes a critic of Churchill, re-read this memo shortly after the outbreak of the war in September 1914, he wrote to Churchill’s private secretary, “It is a triumph of prophecy!” More importantly, the Agadir crisis had reawakened in Churchill his previously expressed worries about the prospect of total war between modern nations. It caused him to change his mind about his earlier opposition to a naval buildup. He wrote in retrospect that “although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I were right in the narrow sense [about the number of battleships], we were absolutely wrong in relation to the deep tides of destiny.”1 Churchill’s political focus would now change from domestic to foreign affairs, where it would remain for most of the rest of his life.
The diaries collected by the Mass Observation group asked ordinary people to write and report not just their own opinions and views but of those around them. This would have been the historic equivalent of a modern day tweet. The Ministry of Information also produced regular “Home Intelligence” reports, which helped assess, for example,how the population was feeling following the Blitz helped the government manage their response to the public. These reports paid particular attention to the reception of ministerial speeches, including Churchill's.
The Allied landings in North Africa necessitated a fresh meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt, this time in Casablanca in January 1943. There Churchill argued for an early, full-scale attack on “the under-belly of the Axis” but won only a grudging acquiescence from the Americans. There too was evolved the “unconditional surrender” formula of debatable wisdom. Churchill paid the price for his intensive travel (including Tripoli, Turkey, and Algeria) by an attack of pneumonia, for which, however, he allowed only the briefest of respites. In May he was in Washington again, arguing against persistent American aversion to his “under-belly” strategy; in August he was at Quebec, working out the plans for Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel assault. When he learned that the Americans were planning a large-scale invasion of Burma in 1944, his fears that their joint resources would not be adequate for a successful invasion of Normandy were revived. In November 1943 at Cairo he urged on Roosevelt priority for further Mediterranean offensives, but at Tehrān in the first “Big Three” meeting, he failed to retain Roosevelt’s adherence to a completely united Anglo-American front. Roosevelt, though he consulted in private with Stalin, refused to see Churchill alone; for all their friendship there was also an element of rivalry between the two Western leaders that Stalin skillfully exploited. On the issue of Allied offensive drives into southern Europe, Churchill was outvoted. Throughout the meetings Churchill had been unwell, and on his way home he came down again with pneumonia. Though recovery was rapid, it was mid-January 1944 before convalescence was complete. By May he was proposing to watch the D-Day assaults from a battle cruiser; only the King’s personal plea dissuaded him.
Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many are the tales that are told. We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous maneuver. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
For the next year Britain held its resolve. It was battered but did not crumble. In fact, the war energized Churchill, who was sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister. Churchill maintained his private strength by taking each day at a time. Churchill resolved that the only way to move past The Darkest Hour was to keep moving. He commented that “success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” Alternatively, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”