11. Do not let us speak of darker days; let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days, these are great days – the greatest days that our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race. Harrow School, 29 October 1941
Those are the regular, well-tested, well-proved arguments on which we have relied during many years in peace and war. But the question is whether there are any new methods by which those solid assurances can be circumvented. Odd as it may seem, some attention has been given to this by the Admiralty, whose prime duty and responsibility is to destroy any large sea-borne expedition before it reaches, or at the moment when it reaches, these shores. It would not be a good thing for me to go into details of this. It might suggest ideas to other people which they have not thought of, and they would not be likely to give us any of their ideas in exchange. All I will say is that untiring vigilance and mind-searching must be devoted to the subject, because the enemy is crafty and cunning and full of novel treacheries and stratagems. The House may be assured that the utmost ingenuity is being displayed and imagination is being evoked from large numbers of competent officers, well-trained in tactics and thoroughly up to date, to measure and counterwork novel possibilities. Untiring vigilance and untiring searching of the mind is being, and must be, devoted to the subject, because, remember, the enemy is crafty and there is no dirty trick he will not do.
A careful review of Churchill’s own historical works, starting with his magisterial biography of his forebear John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, and continuing with his multi-volume works on the two world wars and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, will show that it was not merely the repetition of past patterns of history that he could see. History for Churchill was a source of imagination about how the future would change, which is why he wrote, “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”
The peroration – quoted below – even at a moment of great apparent danger to British national survival talks not only of national survival and national interest, but of noble causes (freedom, Christian civilisation, the rights of small nations) for which Britain was fighting and for which Churchill thought the United States should – and given time would – fight.[d] The War Illustrated published the speech with the title "'If the Empire lasts a thousand years men will say, this was their finest hour'".
Having said all that, The Roar of the Lion is a valuable addition to the study of Churchill’s wartime premiership and demonstrates that there is still much to say about the man and his work. What is remarkable is not the number of complaints that contemporary listeners registered about this or that speech, but the number of times Churchill hit his mark. That was never more true than during the early days of the Blitz when his broadcasts helped reassure the British people. The novelist Naomi Royde Smith put it best when she described one of those broadcasts in September in 1940. ‘The statement of facts made’, she wrote in her diary, ‘the danger is presented, [and] long successions of monosyllables beat on in the ear like the sound of an army marching to drums ... It sounds simple enough, but how few men can do it’ (p. 74).
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.
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.
Already in 1944, with victory in prospect, party politics had revived, and by May 1945 all parties in the wartime coalition wanted an early election. But whereas Churchill wanted the coalition to continue at least until Japan was defeated, Labour wished to resume its independence. Churchill as the popular architect of victory seemed unbeatable, but as an election campaigner he proved to be his own worst enemy, indulging, seemingly at Beaverbrook’s urging, in extravagant prophecies of the appalling consequences of a Labour victory and identifying himself wholly with the Conservative cause. His campaign tours were a triumphal progress, but it was the war leader, not the party leader, whom the crowds cheered. Labour’s careful but sweeping program of economic and social reform was a better match for the nation’s mood than Churchill’s flamboyance. Though personally victorious at his Essex constituency of Woodford, Churchill saw his party reduced to 213 seats in a Parliament of 640.
The position of the B. E.F had now become critical As a result of a most skillfully conducted retreat and German errors, the bulk of the British Forces reached the Dunkirk bridgehead. The peril facing the British nation was now suddenly and universally perceived. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo “–the evacuation from Dunkirk began. The seas remained absolutely calm. The Royal Air Force–bitterly maligned at the time by the Army–fought vehemently to deny the enemy the total air supremacy which would have wrecked the operation. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the event, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England, including 26,000 French soldiers. On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons, seeking to check the mood of national euphoria and relief at the unexpected deliverance, and to make a clear appeal to the United States.
He had been in the habit of totally memorising his speeches. But from this point forward, Churchill decided to forge a system of speech writing that employed copious notes and several revisions. It was this system which helped create the powerful and awe inspiring oratory which Churchill had envisioned as a 23-year-old in 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ and for which Churchill has become famous. So in many ways, it was from this small failure that day in the House of Commons that Churchill’s amazing oratory was born.
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.
Then came the crucial final line, which is often forgotten amidst the cries to battle on beaches and streets. “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,” Churchill said. “Then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
'... This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes. There are vast numbers, not only in this island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a War of the Unknown Warriors; but let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age ...'
Against this loss of over 30,000 men, we can set a far heavier loss certainly inflicted upon the enemy. But our losses in material are enormous. We have perhaps lost one-third of the men we lost in the opening days of the battle of 21st March, 1918, but we have lost nearly as many guns — nearly one thousand-and all our transport, all the armored vehicles that were with the Army in the north. This loss will impose a further delay on the expansion of our military strength. That expansion had not been proceeding as far as we had hoped. The best of all we had to give had gone to the British Expeditionary Force, and although they had not the numbers of tanks and some articles of equipment which were desirable, they were a very well and finely equipped Army. They had the first-fruits of all that our industry had to give, and that is gone. And now here is this further delay. How long it will be, how long it will last, depends upon the exertions which we make in this Island. An effort the like of which has never been seen in our records is now being made. Work is proceeding everywhere, night and day, Sundays and week days. Capital and Labor have cast aside their interests, rights, and customs and put them into the common stock. Already the flow of munitions has leaped forward. There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us, without retarding the development of our general program.
The most dangerous moment of the War, and the one which caused me the greatest alarm, was when the Japanese Fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base there. The capture of Ceylon, the consequent control of the Indian Ocean, and the possibility at the same time of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring and the future would have been black.
When Neville Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin, the gulf between the Cassandra-like Churchill and the Conservative leaders widened. Repeatedly the accuracy of Churchill’s information on Germany’s aggressive plans and progress was confirmed by events; repeatedly his warnings were ignored. Yet his handful of followers remained small; politically, Chamberlain felt secure in ignoring them. As German pressure mounted on Czechoslovakia, Churchill without success urged the government to effect a joint declaration of purpose by Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. When the Munich Agreement with Hitler was made in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, Churchill laid bare its implications, insisting that it represented “a total and unmitigated defeat.” In March 1939 Churchill and his group pressed for a truly national coalition, and, at last, sentiment in the country, recognizing him as the nation’s spokesman, began to agitate for his return to office. As long as peace lasted, Chamberlain ignored all such persuasions.
The young Winston was not a good scholar and was often punished for his poor performance. In 1888 he was sent to Harrow school where he did well in History and English. In 1893 he was accepted at Sandhurst Military College. He saw action in India and the Sudan and supplemented his pay by writing reports and articles for the Daily Telegraph. In 1899 Churchill was in South Africa working as war correspondent for the Morning Post newspaper.
78 rpm: Gramophone (C3251-2) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, Vol. Three, No. 364]; privately recorded; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 4, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200, Decca 9, London XL.8; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1232
We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. House of Commons (having met in the House of Lords), 28 October 1943
By the end of 1942, British forces had been victorious in Egypt at the Battle of El Alamein and, along with the Americans, had successfully landed in northwest Africa. At the Casablanca Conference (January 14-24, 1943) Churchill and Roosevelt decided to continue with operations in the Mediterranean once they had driven the Germans and Italians out of North Africa. This decision was in accord with Churchill's preference for an attack through the "under belly of the Axis" instead of a more direct approach through northwest Europe into Germany. The war in the Mediterranean theater continued to dominate Churchill's thoughts in 1943. After many frustrating delays, Allied forces (principally British, American, and French) wiped out the last remaining Axis (German and Italian) troops in North Africa. They exploited this success by undertaking operations in Sicily and from there moved onto the Italian peninsula. Related Objects
8. Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride. House of Commons, 22 January 1941
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.
In many ways, Churchill’s reputation as a speechmaker has been a prisoner of the success he achieved between the fall of France in 1940 and the victory at El Alamein in 1942. What most people know of these speeches is largely ‘confined to a few famous phrases excerpted from a limited number of radio broadcasts in the summer of 1940'. The result is that these ‘quotable bits’ have crowded out other equally important, if less memorable speeches made throughout the war (pp. 2, 229). Nothing better illustrates this point than a speech delivered by Churchill that same summer. With their nation’s defeat, it was altogether likely that the French navy – the world’s fourth largest – would fall into German hands. Before he would let that happen, Churchill took what he later called ‘a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned’. With much of the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in North Africa, he ordered the Royal Navy to destroy his former ally’s warships before they could be used by the Nazis against Britain. Churchill’s address to the House of Commons the following day, like the attack itself, is all but forgotten, at least in the English-speaking world; but the immediate impact of both could not have been more significant. The ruthlessness of the assault demonstrated to the world, and especially to the United States, that Britain, in Churchill’s own words, would ‘prosecute the war with the utmost vigour’. For the first time, Conservative MPs joined their Labour and Liberal colleagues cheering the new prime minister, one witness recorded, ‘like mad’ (pp. 62–3). Even if, as Toye suggests, this show of support was stage managed, the Chamberlainite MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, detected a change. ‘At the end of his speech’, Channon recorded in his diary, ‘the House rose, cheered, waved Order Papers – as I have so often seen them do for Neville. Only it was not little Neville’s turn now. Winston suddenly wept’,(3) (Toye does not fully quote this part of Channon’s diary, which is unfortunate. It is a minor oversight, but there are others that are not – about which more later.)
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.
Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.
There is certainly no evidence that any version of the speech, impersonator or not, was broadcast on June 4, 1940. Numerous records detail newsreaders, not Churchill reciting the speech. Regardless, the conspiracy theory spread rapidly. David Irving, a dubious historian and Holocaust denier, ran especially hard with the allegations, claiming Churchill hadn’t really given any of his speeches. A few legitimate historians championed the story as well, but it was thoroughly and repeatedly debunked.
The speech was delivered to the Commons at 3:49 pm, and lasted 36 minutes. Churchill – as was his habit – made revisions to his 23-page typescript right up to and during the speech. The final passage of his typescript was laid out in blank verse format, which Churchill scholars consider reflective of the influence of the Psalms on his oratory style.
"From Truman's point of view, the speech was important because the geopolitical situation had changed so much with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the new threat from the Soviet Union," Muller says. "It was somewhat easier to have Churchill, the great English-speaking ally of the United States from the war, to come and warn about the danger from the Soviet Union and from communism than for Truman to do it himself... It wasn't completely original. There had been various observers of foreign affairs who had suggested that this change was about to happen but from the public's point of view, it was really a startling change."
On May 13 Churchill faced the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister. He warned members of the hard road ahead—“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”—and committed himself and the nation to all-out war until victory was achieved. Behind this simplicity of aim lay an elaborate strategy to which he adhered with remarkable consistency throughout the war. Hitler’s Germany was the enemy; nothing should distract the entire British people from the task of effecting its defeat. Anyone who shared this goal, even a Communist, was an acceptable ally. The indispensable ally in this endeavour, whether formally at war or not, was the United States. The cultivation and maintenance of its support was a central principle of Churchill’s thought. Yet whether the United States became a belligerent partner or not, the war must be won without a repetition for Britain of the catastrophic bloodlettings of World War I; and Europe at the conflict’s end must be reestablished as a viable, self-determining entity, while the Commonwealth should remain as a continuing, if changing, expression of Britain’s world role. Provided these essentials were preserved, Churchill, for all his sense of history, was surprisingly willing to sacrifice any national shibboleths—of orthodox economics, of social convention, of military etiquette or tradition—on the altar of victory. Thus, within a couple of weeks of this crusading anti-Socialist’s assuming power, Parliament passed legislation placing all “persons, their services and their property at the disposal of the Crown”—granting the government in effect the most sweeping emergency powers in modern British history.
Churchill lived such a long life that he had many London residences: it would be nice to feel that, as a result of interest such as yours, blue plaques will one day be put on all of them. For example, in the same street where Churchill spent several years as a child, there is a blue plaque on another house informing passers by that “from this house Chopin went to give his last concert.” Nor is there any plaque on 105 Mount Street, his first bachelor apartment, in which he lived from 1900 to 1905, and from which, incidentally, he went to the House of Commons to make his maiden speech; and in which he was living when he crossed the floor of the House from the Conservative to the Liberal benches.
Matthews further complains that I too frequently quote negative comments about speeches ‘even when those comments represented “minority feeling”’. But minority feeling is exactly what I was trying to elucidate! No historian need apologise for paying attention to society’s dissidents, because even heretical opinions can illuminate the assumptions of the orthodox. Matthews observes: ‘negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public.’ But my point is exactly that reactions to the speeches cast light on issues far beyond what people happened to think about the man who gave them. I would add further that, perfectly naturally, Churchill’s critics tended to be more expansive in their accounts of why they didn’t like speeches than admirers were in explaining why they did. When I found diary entries that detailed the reasons for approval (such as that of Naomi Royde Smith) I quoted them at length. With respect to the Chips Channon passage that Matthews upbraids me for excluding, it should be noted that I included several other quotations, one from Churchill himself, attesting to the powerful response evoked by the speech in question. Meanwhile, I failed to quote (although I cited) the memoirs of the journalist Paul Einzig, who recalled Tory backbenchers on that occasion remaining ‘seated and silent’ until they received a signal from their Chief Whip, whereupon ‘they rose to a man and burst into enthusiastic cheering at the top of their voices’.(1) Channon’s words, perhaps, were not quite as straightforward as Matthews suggests.
The speech was generally praised for its accomplished argument and delivery. The Daily Express wrote that “He held a crowded house spellbound”, the Manchester Guardian, of a “carefully turned speech, filled with antitheses of a literary flavor”. In this card, John Cumming Macdonald MP congratulates Churchill on his "brilliant speech", saying that his father's spirit seemed to hover over him; "you have inherited marvellous ability and aptitude". Others were not so sure: H. W. Massingham wrote in the Liberal Daily News: “Mr Churchill has many disadvantages ... [he] does not inherit his father’s voice – save for the slight lisp – or his father’s manner. Address, accent, appearance do not help him”.