Winston Churchill was one of the best-known, and some say one of the greatest, statesmen of the 20th century. Though he was born into a life of privilege, he dedicated himself to public service. His legacy is a complicated one: He was an idealist and a pragmatist; an orator and a soldier; an advocate of progressive social reforms and an unapologetic elitist; a defender of democracy – especially during World War II – as well as of Britain’s fading empire. But for many people in Great Britain and elsewhere, Winston Churchill is simply a hero.
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).
To make note of the complexity of the origins and responses to this wonderful speech by no means implies criticism of Churchill. Rather, it prompts us to rethink the factors that contributed to his oratorical success. He did not merely provide uplifting soundbites; he presented a factual and reasoned case, provided the public with new information and, crucially, provided them with the context necessary to understand it. He was willing to run the risk of depressing his audience if this would serve the greater purpose of bringing them into contact with reality; he did not attempt to win easy popularity by providing false hope. He followed this formula throughout the war, not always with complete success in terms of audience response, but with the ultimate achievement of establishing his credibility as someone who would deliver the facts no matter how unpalatable they might be. This is a lesson which modern orators will do well to follow.
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.
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
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, 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.
Unlike his subsequent This was their finest hour speech, Churchill's 4 June speech in the House of Commons was not repeated by him as a live radio broadcast that evening. Rather, as with his earlier Blood, toil, tears, and sweat speech, extracts were read by the newsreader on that evening's BBC news broadcast. They made a great impression on at least one listener:
Churchill’s reputation as an orator is based principally on his speeches and broadcasts as Prime Minister during the summer of 1940, in particular those known usually as ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ (13 May), ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ (4 June) and ‘This was their Finest Hour’, which was delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June and broadcast by the BBC to the nation later that evening.
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.
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.
Although Churchill laid down the burdens of office amid the plaudits of the nation and the world, he remained in the House of Commons (declining a peerage) to become “father of the house” and even, in 1959, to fight and win yet another election. He also published another major work, A History of the English- Speaking Peoples, four volumes (1956–58). But his health declined, and his public appearances became rare. On April 9, 1963, he was accorded the unique distinction of having an honorary U.S. citizenship conferred on him by an act of Congress. His death at his London home in January 1965 was followed by a state funeral at which almost the whole world paid tribute. He was buried in the family grave in Bladon churchyard, Oxfordshire.
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.
Oddly enough, some people believe that they did hear it on the radio though. Nella Last, a British housewife who kept diaries during the war, wrote in 1947, “I remember that husky, rather stuttering voice acclaiming that we would ‘fight on the beaches, on the streets. I felt my head rise as if galvanised and a feeling that ‘I’ll be there — count on me; I’ll not fail you.'” Even a Dunkirk soldier thought he had heard the speech, writes Smithsonian. Some began to think they heard an impersonator deliver the words.
But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months - if it takes years - they do it.