What followed was his now famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, regarded as one of the most rousing and iconic addresses of World War II. While much of the oration concerned the recent Allied military losses and a reflection on the challenging road ahead, it is best remembered for Churchill’s passionate pledge to fight in seas, oceans, hills, streets, and beaches — to “never surrender.” The speech has been spliced into countless documentaries and recreated in several films, including the forthcoming Churchill biopic Darkest Hour. But history has colored most people’s recollections of this oration. It was not the immediate morale booster we imagine, and actually depressed quite a few Brits. It was also, arguably not for them, but instead for the Americans who were still watching the war from the sidelines.
As Toye concedes, ‘MO diarists were self-selecting, and were disproportionately drawn from the middle classes’ (p. 8). But the problems do not stop there. John Lukacs has praised the MO diaries, saying they ‘breathe with the presence of authenticity’. But he also notes that the organization’s researchers ‘made no pretense to anything “scientific” and did not attempt to quantify all their data’.(5) And, it must be said, at times the diarists sound like a ready-made awkward squad, or ‘confirmed grousers’ as one of them called Churchill’s critics (p. 149). There was no greater collection of grousers than those serving in the military, where the words ‘bastard’ and ‘Winston Churchill’ seemed to go hand-in-hand. (pp. 131, 174, 269, n. 39). According to one sailor, the Royal Navy had ‘special dislike for him, as we do all his dirty work’ (p. 140). Contrast those remarks with reaction to one of Churchill’s most controversial actions: his 1944 intervention in the Greek Civil War. Thanks to censorship summaries of their letters, Toye reveals that Churchill’s policy was ‘highly popular’ with British soldiers sent to Greece to carry it out (p. 191). Instead of a random letter here, or a diary entry there, these censorship reports promise a broader, invaluable insight into the feelings of British servicemen and women and, perhaps, their relatives and friends. But Toye only refers to these summaries in this one instance.
[O]ur loyal, brave people ... should know the truth. ... they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, ... and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies; ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proferred to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
It is said that immediately after giving the speech, Churchill muttered to a colleague, "And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!" Nonetheless, Churchill impressed his listeners and the speech was immediately recognised to be historic. One of Churchill's secretaries noted in his diary "A magnificent oration, which obviously moved the House". A Conservative MP wrote in his diary "he was eloquent and oratorical and used magnificent English; several Labour members cried". A Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, 1st Baron Wedgwood, friend and admirer of Churchill since the Dardanelles campaign, wrote to him, "My dear Winston. That was worth 1,000 guns and the speeches of 1,000 years".
But curiously, some began believing they had. Toye points to Nella Last, a British housewife who kept meticulous diaries during the war. She had originally written on the day of the speech, “We all listened to the news and the account of the Prime Minister’s speech and all felt grave and rather sad about things unsaid rather than said.” But by 1947, her recollection had shifted. “I remember that husky, rather stuttering voice acclaiming that we would ‘fight on the beaches, on the streets,’” she wrote. “I felt my head rise as if galvanised and a feeling that ‘I’ll be there -- count on me; I’ll not fail you.’”
I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That I judge to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was we did not have, as we could have had, between twelve and fourteen British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments--and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too--during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.
The effort was designed to match the gravity of the hour. After the Allied defeat and the evacuation of the battered British forces from Dunkirk, Churchill warned Parliament that invasion was a real risk to be met with total and confident defiance. Faced with the swift collapse of France, Churchill made repeated personal visits to the French government in an attempt to keep France in the war, culminating in the celebrated offer of Anglo-French union on June 16, 1940. When all this failed, the Battle of Britain began on July 10. Here Churchill was in his element, in the firing line—at fighter headquarters, inspecting coast defenses or antiaircraft batteries, visiting scenes of bomb damage or victims of the “blitz,” smoking his cigar, giving his V sign, or broadcasting frank reports to the nation, laced with touches of grim Churchillian humour and splashed with Churchillian rhetoric. The nation took him to its heart; he and they were one in “their finest hour.”
“I am very glad that Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was the nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.
Almost a year has passed since I came down here at your Head Master's kind invitation in order to cheer myself and cheer the hearts of a few of my friends by singing some of our own songs. The ten months that have passed have seen very terrible catastrophic events in the world - ups and downs, misfortunes - but can anyone sitting here this afternoon, this October afternoon, not feel deeply thankful for what has happened in the time that has passed and for the very great improvement in the position of our country and of our home? Why, when I was here last time we were quite alone, desperately alone, and we had been so for five or six months. We were poorly armed. We are not so poorly armed today; but then we were very poorly armed. We had the unmeasured menace of the enemy and their air attack still beating upon us, and you yourselves had had experience of this attack; and I expect you are beginning to feel impatient that there has been this long lull with nothing particular turning up!
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 was decidedly more circumspect when it came to domestic British politics, in particular when the subject was post-war reconstruction. For good reason. Though leader of the Conservative Party from October 1940, he was also ‘national leader’ of a coalition government. This forced Churchill to maintain a delicate balance in the House of Commons where Tory MPs still held a majority of seats, but where his administration depended on the participation of both Labour and the Liberals. Conveniently, for Churchill, he could argue that it was premature to talk of what would happen after victory. To his mind, the important thing – indeed, the only thing – that mattered was winning the war. After the triumph at El Alamein, soon followed by Sir William Beveridge’s report on the future of social services, that position was no longer tenable. A post-war Britain could be detected just over the horizon, and the Beveridge Report laid out a blueprint for how that Britain could be a very different nation from the one that had emerged after the last world war.
We are also told that the Italian Navy is to come to 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 Straits of Gibraltar in order that he may play the part which he aspires to do. There is 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
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.
I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations. I am sorry, however, that he has not been mellowed by the great success that has attended him. The whole world would rejoice to see the Hitler of peace and tolerance, and nothing would adorn his name in world history so much as acts of magnanimity and of mercy and of pity to the forlorn and friendless, to the weak and poor. ... Let this great man search his own heart and conscience before he accuses anyone of being a warmonger.
I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.
Churchill also got excellent reviews in the American press. Journalist Edward R. Murrow, who heard the speech in the House of Commons, told listeners: “Winston Churchill’s speeches have been prophetic. Today, as prime minister, he gave…a report remarkable for its honesty, inspiration, and gravity.” The New York Times wrote, “It took moral heroism to tell the story that Winston Churchill unfolded to the House of Commons yesterday. Its meaning will not be lost upon the British people or their enemies, or upon those in the New World who know that the Allies today are fighting their own battle against barbarism.”
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.
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)
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.
The young Churchill passed an unhappy and sadly neglected childhood, redeemed only by the affection of Mrs. Everest, his devoted nurse. At Harrow his conspicuously poor academic record seemingly justified his father’s decision to enter him into an army career. It was only at the third attempt that he managed to pass the entrance examination to the Royal Military College, now Academy, Sandhurst, but, once there, he applied himself seriously and passed out (graduated) 20th in a class of 130. In 1895, the year of his father’s tragic death, he entered the 4th Hussars. Initially the only prospect of action was in Cuba, where he spent a couple of months of leave reporting the Cuban war of independence from Spain for the Daily Graphic (London). In 1896 his regiment went to India, where he saw service as both soldier and journalist on the North-West Frontier (1897). Expanded as The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), his dispatches attracted such wide attention as to launch him on the career of authorship that he intermittently pursued throughout his life. In 1897–98 he wrote Savrola (1900), a Ruritanian romance, and got himself attached to Lord Kitchener’s Nile expeditionary force in the same dual role of soldier and correspondent. The River War (1899) brilliantly describes the campaign.
78 rpm: Gramophone (C3223-5) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, Vol. Two, No. 356] BBC, Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund of U.S.A., Hear It Now I; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 4, Decca 8, London XL.9, Hear It Now I, World Record Club EZ.1026, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, ProArte
The electoral onslaught shook Labour but left them still in office. It took what Churchill called “one more heave” to defeat them in a second election, in October 1951. Churchill again took a vigorous lead in the campaign. He pressed the government particularly hard on its handling of the crisis caused by Iran’s nationalization of British oil companies and in return had to withstand charges of warmongering. The Conservatives were returned with a narrow majority of 17, and Churchill became prime minister for the second time. He formed a government in which the more liberal Conservatives predominated, though the Liberal Party itself declined Churchill’s suggestion of office. A prominent figure in the government was R.A. Butler, the progressive-minded chancellor of the Exchequer. Anthony Eden was foreign secretary. Some notable Churchillians were included, among them Lord Cherwell, who, as paymaster general, was principal scientific adviser with special responsibilities for atomic research and development.
Churchill was writing to Cockran, a Democratic congressman from New York City, about the economic problem of the “trusts,” which was then front and center in American politics. As we shall see, Churchill had strong views about how governments would need to respond to social changes in the twentieth century—indeed, that question was the focus of his early ministerial career—but from his earliest days, even before he entered politics, he saw that the new scale of things in the modern world would be felt most powerfully in the area of warfare. His observations about the “terrible machinery of scientific war” in The River War led him to ask what would happen when two modern nations—not Britain and the Sudanese Dervishes—confronted each other with the modern weapons of war. It was a question no one else was asking.
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.34-36), Gramophone (C3199-201) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, No. 348], BBC; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, Decca 7, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200, London XL.12; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: British Library, BBC 75 Years, BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, ProArte
Important as these later speeches were, Churchill’s reputation as an orator still largely rests on the ones he gave during the war’s early years. And that is where the trouble lies with this book. According to Toye, a ‘powerful myth’ envelops Churchill’s role in the war, one in which through his speeches alone he rallied the British people by making them ‘feel the same way’ or by putting ‘into words what they were all feeling but could not express themselves’. This myth, he explains, is ‘crucial’, not least when it comes to the ‘popular image of the summer of 1940'. In fact, says Toye, historians would have us believe that whenever Churchill spoke ‘people were reduced to a condition of helpless ecstasy every time he opened his mouth’ (p. 3–4, 227–8).
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”.
At the Board of Trade, Churchill emerged as a leader in the movement of Liberalism away from laissez-faire toward social reform. He completed the work begun by his predecessor, Lloyd George, on the bill imposing an eight-hour maximum day for miners. He himself was responsible for attacking the evils of “sweated” labour by setting up trade boards with power to fix minimum wages and for combating unemployment by instituting state-run labour exchanges.
Churchill, even at this relatively young age, demonstrated great writing skill; he understood the way in which words could wield great power, create moods and stir passions. He was clearly aware, however, of a particular “mental flaw”; his tendency to allow the power of certain phrases to govern his principles, to use words that sounded good – with the power to win an audience – over those that reflected a genuine view or argument.With great self-awareness, he writes in this letter to his mother that “I am very much impressed with C. J. R. [Cecil Rhodes] having ... detected my mental flaw. I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they win me ... I vy often yield to the temptation of adapting my facts to my phrases”. He adds, though, that “a keen sense of necessity or ... injustice would make me sincere”.
While largely unstated, one of Churchill’s major concerns was limiting Soviet territorial gains in Europe. Having an eye toward the postwar world, he did not want Stalin in control of formerly democratic nations. However, geopolitics required further cooperation with his unlikely ally, and Churchill met Roosevelt for the last time in Stalin’s domain—Yalta in the Crimea, in February 1945. Victory in Europe was visible by then, though with more hard fighting to come in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s premature death in April ended the original Big Three.
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.
The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House. ... It has a collective personality which enjoys the regard of the public, and which imposes itself upon the conduct not only of individual Members but of parties.
On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill gave one of the most rousing and iconic addresses of World War II: his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. Though history reveres this speech, it was actually quite depressing for the Brits — though it has been argued that the speech was not for them, but for the Americans who were still sitting on the sidelines, writes Smithsonian Magazine.
Few people, when they hear the speech on radio or TV documentaries, are aware that they are listening to Churchill speaking not in 1940 but nine years later.Strangely, though, there is a popular myth that the speech was broadcast at the time, not by Churchill himself, but by an actor, Norman Shelley. Shelley did make a phonograph recording of a different Churchill speech in the aftermath of the 1942 victory at El Alamein although what use was made of it, if any, is unknown. He never claimed to have impersonated the Prime Minister over the airwaves, and though many historians have pointed out that the story is false, it seems impossible to kill it.
In the House of Commons, some members were moved to tears, but by no means all of them. Although the Dunkirk evacuation had been a remarkable success in its own terms, it had only been necessary because of the sweeping German victories that had humiliated Britain and her allies. Churchill rightly acknowledged that what had happened in France and Belgium had been ‘a colossal military disaster’. The Labour MP Emanuel Shinwell recalled:We were very much depressed as a result of the events that led to him making this speech, and all his oratory could not remove that depression.