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
One of Churchill’s instructors at Harrow, Robert Somervell, recognized the boy’s abilities. In fact, Somervell thought Churchill ought to attend one of Britain’s prestigious universities rather than the military academy at Sandhurst, where he eventually enrolled. When Churchill was fourteen, Somervell challenged him to write an essay on a topic of his own choosing. He wanted to give his pupil free range to see what his imagination and comprehensive knowledge of history might produce. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, had been chancellor of the exchequer, and some speculate that Somervell, expecting an equally illustrious political career for the son, wanted to have a record for the school of Churchill’s early prowess.
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.
"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."
The shock of rejection by the nation fell heavily on Churchill. Indeed, though he accepted the role of leader of the parliamentary opposition, he was never wholly at home in it. The economic and social questions that dominated domestic politics were not at the centre of his interests. Nor, with his imperial vision, could he approve of what he called Labour’s policy of “scuttle,” as evidenced in the granting of independence to India and Burma (though he did not vote against the necessary legislation). But in foreign policy a broad identity of view persisted between the front benches, and this was the area to which Churchill primarily devoted himself. On March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Missouri, he enunciated, in the presence of President Truman, the two central themes of his postwar view of the world: the need for Britain and the United States to unite as guardians of the peace against the menace of Soviet Communism, which had brought down an “iron curtain” across the face of Europe; and with equal fervour he emerged as an advocate of European union. At Zürich, on September 19, 1946, he urged the formation of “a council of Europe” and himself attended the first assembly of the council at Strasbourg in 1949. Meanwhile, he busied himself with his great history, The Second World War, six volumes (1948–53).
Where I put “Commons” in brackets following the speech title, it of course indicates that the speech was recorded by Churchill subsequent to its date of delivery in the House, as there was no audio recording of Commons proceedings in Churchill’s day. That first occurred on 3 April 1978, long after Churchill’s days in Parliament. I add, as a point of interest, the fact that video broadcasts of proceedings on the floor of the House began on 21 November 1989.
While Churchill is often credited with having originated the phrase “iron curtain,” he may, ironically enough, have gotten the term from Count Schwerin von Krosigk, the foreign minister of Germany in the last days of the war, who, the Times reported, had warned in a radio broadcast a few days before VE Day, “In the East the iron curtain behind which, unseen by the eyes of the world, the work of destruction goes on, is moving steadily forward.”
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
These speeches show what a brilliant and prescient man the world had in Winston Churchill. It is truly tragic that, like so many before and after, people refused to believe his words until too late. Fortunately, there was a happy ending to the story, but not before millions died. Were his words heeded, one must wonder what the outcome might have been.
Sir, I considered it in the public interest to suggest that the House should be summoned to meet today. Mr. Speaker agreed, and took the necessary steps, in accordance with the powers conferred upon him by the Resolution of the House. At the end of the proceedings today, the Adjournment of the House will be proposed until Tuesday, the 21st of May, with, of course, provision for earlier meeting, if need be. The business to be considered during that week will be notified to Members at the earliest opportunity. I now invite the House, by the Resolution which stands in my name, to record its approval of the steps taken and to declare its confidence in the new Government.
In any age and time a man of Churchill’s force and talents would have left his mark on events and society. A gifted journalist, a biographer and historian of classic proportions, an amateur painter of talent, an orator of rare power, a soldier of courage and distinction, Churchill, by any standards, was a man of rare versatility. But it was as a public figure that he excelled. His experience of office was second only to Gladstone’s, and his gifts as a parliamentarian hardly less, but it was as a wartime leader that he left his indelible imprint on the history of Britain and on the world. In this capacity, at the peak of his powers, he united in a harmonious whole his liberal convictions about social reform, his deep conservative devotion to the legacy of his nation’s history, his unshakable resistance to tyranny from the right or from the left, and his capacity to look beyond Britain to the larger Atlantic community and the ultimate unity of Europe. A romantic, he was also a realist, with an exceptional sensitivity to tactical considerations at the same time as he unswervingly adhered to his strategical objectives. A fervent patriot, he was also a citizen of the world. An indomitable fighter, he was a generous victor. Even in the transition from war to peace, a phase in which other leaders have often stumbled, he revealed, at an advanced age, a capacity to learn and to adjust that was in many respects superior to that of his younger colleagues.
On September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Chamberlain appointed Churchill to his old post in charge of the Admiralty. The signal went out to the fleet: “Winston is back.” On September 11 Churchill received a congratulatory note from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt and replied over the signature “Naval Person”; a memorable correspondence had begun. At once Churchill’s restless energy began to be felt throughout the administration, as his ministerial colleagues as well as his own department received the first of those pungent minutes that kept the remotest corners of British wartime government aware that their shortcomings were liable to detection and penalty. All his efforts, however, failed to energize the torpid Anglo-French entente during the so-called “phony war,” the period of stagnation in the European war before the German seizure of Norway in April 1940. The failure of the Narvik and Trondheim expeditions, dependent as they were on naval support, could not but evoke some memories of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, so fateful for Churchill’s reputation in World War I. This time, however, it was Chamberlain who was blamed, and it was Churchill who endeavoured to defend him.
Therefore, it seems to me that as far as sea-borne invasion on a great scale is concerned, we are far more capable of meeting it today than we were at many periods in the last war and during the early months of this war, before our other troops were trained, and while the B.E.F. had proceeded abroad. Now, the Navy have never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly across and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning. The efficacy of sea power, especially under modern conditions, depends upon the invading force being of large size; It has to be of large size, in view of our military strength, to be of any use. If it is of large size, then the Navy have something they can find and meet and, as it were, bite on. Now, we must remember that even five divisions, however lightly equipped, would require 200 to 250 ships, and with modern air reconnaissance and photography it would not be easy to collect such an armada, marshal it, and conduct it across the sea without any powerful naval forces to escort it; and there would be very great possibilities, to put it mildly, that this armada would be intercepted long before it reached the coast, and all the men drowned in the sea or, at the worst blown to pieces with their equipment while they were trying to land. We also have a great system of minefields, recently strongly reinforced, through which we alone know the channels. If the enemy tries to sweep passages through these minefields, it will be the task of the Navy to destroy the mine-sweepers and any other forces employed to protect them. There should be no difficulty in this, owing to our great superiority at sea.
On the occasion of Churchill’s 80th birthday, Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall to honour him and Churchill was presented with a Graham Sutherland portrait of himself (of which he later said “I think it is malignant”). Beginning his speech by saying the event was “the most memorable occasion of my life”, Churchill acknowledged the role that writing and speech-making had played in his life. He said: “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 a 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”.
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.
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.
Churchill's strategy was to both maintain Britain's global role and establish constructive relations with Moscow through Summit conferences of world leaders. Churchill was to be largely frustrated in these efforts. Leaders with whom he forged personal relationships in World War II were dead (Roosevelt), devoted to other priorities (Eisenhower), or soon to die (Stalin). Winston was the only one talking about "Summits" - a term he popularized.
There remains, of course, the danger of bombing attacks, which will certainly be made very soon upon us by the bomber forces of the enemy. It is true that the German bomber force is superior in numbers to ours; but we have a very large bomber force also, which we shall use to strike at military targets in Germany without intermission. I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world. Much will depend upon this; every man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of their race, and render the highest service to their cause. For all of us, at this time, whatever our sphere, our station, our occupation or our duties, it will be a help to remember the famous lines:
Upon his very first entrance into the House of Commons as Britain's new Prime Minister on Monday, May 13, 1940, Winston Churchill only received a lukewarm reception from the assembly, while at his side, outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was heartily cheered. Churchill then made this brief statement, which has become one of the finest call-to-arms yet uttered. It came at the beginning of World War II when the armies of Adolf Hitler were roaring across Europe, seemingly unstoppable, conquering country after country for Nazi Germany, and when the survival of Great Britain itself appeared rather uncertain.
Toye has a theory on why people were -- and in some cases, still are -- so eager to believe this urban myth. “As a piece of psychological speculation one might hazard that they feel that the account of the almost mystical power of Churchill’s oratory, as it is usually presented, is in some sense too good to be true,” he writes in his book. Clearly, the mystique surrounding Churchill’s speeches is too good to be true. He did not have people cheering in the streets, shouting his name, and diving headfirst into the war effort after a single speech. They were certainly not responding to his “husky, rather stuttering” voice, which was not widely heard that day.
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.
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!
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.
As well as rallying his audience at home, Churchill also appealed to the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany: ‘And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or 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’.
In his later years, Winston Churchill devoted more and more time to reading the classics of literature and, in 1953, was spending many months reading Trollope, the Brontes, Hardy and Scott. Appropriately, he learned in October that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (he was disappointed that it was not the Peace Prize) in recognition of his life-long commitment to – and mastery of – the written and spoken word. Because he was in Washington in the US at the time of the ceremony, Clementine received it on his behalf. Here, Prime Minister of Sweden, Tage Erlander, sends his “most sincere felicitations” on the occasion of “this tribute”.
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.
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.
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.39), Gramophone (C3204) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, No. 348], BBC; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca 8, London XL.10; Tape: Hodder; CD: Sunday Express, Hodder, BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, ProArte, Argo 1118
What is important is that the version found on the BBC’s ‘School Radio’ site is the one used in documentaries, such as ITV’s 1973–4 World at War series. It is the version that people, including those who listened to the actual broadcast, think of when they think of this speech. But is it what the British people heard in the summer of 1940? There are hints here and there that Churchill ‘re-recorded’ some of his wartime speeches for Decca Records around 1949. Strangely, none of Churchill’s biographers mention this, and neither does Toye. More’s the pity. It is a mystery that, if solved, could help explain why reactions to Churchill’s broadcasts when they were given differ from the impressions we have of them today.