When Winston Churchill walked into the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, he had much to discuss. The Allies had just pulled off the “miracle of Dunkirk,” rescuing some 338,000 troops from a dire situation in France. But this victory was a hollow one. The soldiers were only saved thanks to a curious halt order from the German command, and the Nazis were just days away from entering Paris. Churchill knew he had to prepare his people for the possible fall of France. He also knew he had to send a message to a reluctant ally across the pond.
He justified the low level of support it had been possible to give to France since Dunkirk, and reported the successful evacuation of most of the supporting forces. He resisted pressure to purge the coalition of appeasers, or otherwise indulge in recrimination. He reviewed the forces still available to prevent or repel any attempted invasion,[b] summing up the review as follows:
In these hard days the exchange of U.S. overage destroyers for British Caribbean bases and the response, by way of lend-lease, to Churchill’s boast “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job” were especially heartening to one who believed in a “mixing-up” of the English-speaking democracies. The unspoken alliance was further cemented in August 1941 by the dramatic meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, which produced the Atlantic Charter, a statement of common principles between the United States and Britain.
The famous June 1940 speech “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the landings grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” was influenced by William Philip Simms, the pro-British foreign editor of the influential Scripps-Howard chain of American newspapers.  There was concern that the USA would not enter the war, so Simms provided suggestions that were passed on to Churchill, to advise on the language needed to maximise Americans’ sympathies in the war, so that they would support and get behind the British.  In order to scotch the growing belief that the Allies could not take much more punishment, he argued that Churchill should say something on the following lines:
Lloyd George’s speech had the desired sobering effect on Germany. Old-fashioned quiet diplomacy—perhaps the last of the nineteenth-century style—resolved the crisis, but the war drums had sounded, and Britain’s military planners had begun contemplating how a war against Germany might be conducted. A few days before a key meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defense, Churchill set down in a long memorandum how a war on the continent would begin. “It was,” Churchill wrote later, “only an attempt to pierce the veil of the future; to conjure up in the mind a vast imaginary situation; to balance the incalculable; to weigh the imponderable.”
4. 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 on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. House of Commons, 4 June 1940
When this Liberal program necessitated high taxation, which in turn provoked the House of Lords to the revolutionary step of rejecting the budget of 1909, Churchill was Lloyd George’s closest ally in developing the provocative strategy designed to clip the wings of the upper chamber. Churchill became president of the Budget League, and his oratorical broadsides at the House of Lords were as lively and devastating as Lloyd George’s own. Indeed Churchill, as an alleged traitor to his class, earned the lion’s share of Tory animosity. His campaigning in the two general elections of 1910 and in the House of Commons during the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which curbed the House of Lords’ powers, won him wide popular acclaim. In the cabinet his reward was promotion to the office of home secretary. Here, despite substantial achievements in prison reform, he had to devote himself principally to coping with a sweeping wave of industrial unrest and violent strikes. Upon occasion his relish for dramatic action led him beyond the limits of his proper role as the guarantor of public order. For this he paid a heavy price in incurring the long-standing suspicion of organized labour.

Early in Winston Churchill’s political career he became known for his opposition, during peacetime, to building armaments for armaments’ sake. He thought such expenditures diverted too much taxpayer money from more pressing domestic social needs. Over the course of Churchill’s entire political career, he supported lower defense spending most of the time. He was one of the authors of the “ten-year rule,” according to which British defense planning should look ten years ahead for potential conflicts, and plan accordingly. If no conflict could reasonably be foreseen, Churchill usually urged restraint in defense spending. But when the potential for serious conflict began to appear on the horizon, as it did before each world war, Churchill bowed to reality and urged preparedness.
6. 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. Radio broadcast, 14 July 1940
As a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.

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.


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, of which I was speaking just now, 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 manœuvre. 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.
From the moment that the French defenses at Sedan and on the Meuse were broken at the end of the second week of May, only a rapid retreat to Amiens and the south could have saved the British and French Armies who had entered Belgium at the appeal of the Belgian King; but this strategic fact was not immediately realized. The French High Command hoped they would be able to close the gap, and the Armies of the north were under their orders. Moreover, a retirement of this kind would have involved almost certainly the destruction of the fine Belgian Army of over 20 divisions and the abandonment of the whole of Belgium. Therefore, when the force and scope of the German penetration were realized and when a new French Generalissimo, General Weygand, assumed command in place of General Gamelin, an effort was made by the French and British Armies in Belgium to keep on holding the right hand of the Belgians and to give their own right hand to a newly created French Army which was to have advanced across the Somme in great strength to grasp it.
Professor Toye commented:“There was a complexity to people’s reactions to Churchill’s speeches at the time, as the evidence shows that they may have liked one bit of a speech and not another section, or liked some speeches but not others. People sometimes changed their minds following discussions with friends or after reading newspaper commentaries; there was not a blanket acceptance and positive reaction. A more measured response to his speeches is in evidence. This is possibly why the speeches didn’t always have the effect now credited to them.”
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.
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.)
He describes a meeting of the junior officer with senior officers: “Aide-de-camp,” said General C., “order these men to extend and advance on the double.” On another occasion, the general is smashed in the head with a fragment of an artillery shell. Churchill wrote, “General C. observing his fate with a look of indifference turns to me and says ‘Go yourself—aide-de-camp.’”

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 a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
I return to the Army. In the long series of very fierce battles, now on this front, now on that, fighting on three fronts at once, battles fought by two or three divisions against an equal or somewhat larger number of the enemy, and fought fiercely on some of the old grounds that so many of us knew so well-in these battles our losses in men have exceeded 30,000 killed, wounded and missing. I take occasion to express the sympathy of the House to all who have suffered bereavement or who are still anxious. The President of the Board of Trade [Sir Andrew Duncan] is not here today. His son has been killed, and many in the House have felt the pangs of affliction in the sharpest form. But I will say this about the missing: We have had a large number of wounded come home safely to this country, but I would say about the missing that there may be very many reported missing who will come back home, some day, in one way or another. In the confusion of this fight it is inevitable that many have been left in positions where honor required no further resistance from them.

'... 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 ...'


The English-speaking world was stunned when Churchill was turned out of office in July 1945. What appeared to be staggering ingratitude by the British voters probably was better explained by the approaching peace. Winston Churchill was a warrior by instinct and by preference; his countrymen recognized that fact and considered Labour’s candidate, Clement Atlee, better suited for peacetime challenges. With Japan’s surrender in September, those concerns became even more immediate. He regained the prime ministership in 1951.


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.
Lest the account which I have given of these large forces should raise the question: Why did they not take part in the great battle in France? I must make it clear that, apart from the divisions training and organizing at home, only twelve divisions were equipped to fight upon a scale which justified their being sent abroad. And this was fully up to the number which the French had been led to expect would be available in France at the ninth month of the war. The rest of our forces at home have a fighting value for home defense which will, of course, steadily increase every week that passes. Thus, the invasion of Great Britain would at this time require the transportation across the sea of hostile armies on a very large scale, and after they had been so transported they would have to be continually maintained with all the masses of munitions and supplies which are required for continuous battle--as continuous battle it will surely be.
This speech may be regarded as the most important Churchill delivered as Leader of the Opposition. It contains certain phrases - “the special relationship,” “the sinews of peace “ - which at once entered into general use, and which have survived. But it is the passage on “the iron curtain” which attracted immediate international attention, and had incalculable impact upon public opinion in the United States and in Western Europe. This speech ultimately defined the parameters of the Cold War.
I really wish we had leaders like this in our time. Churchill lead England through a brutal period of a year and a half when nobody was standing against Hitler in Europe. He never sugar coated things. He believed absolutely in what he had to do, and more importantly, he explained things clearly to people and made them understand that he needed them. Just check out his speechs during the Battle of Britain. He drives you with his words, spurring his listeners to action.

The tall, elegant, and mustached Acheson must have reminded Churchill of his own foreign minister Anthony Eden. Churchill greeted the under secretary in his green dragon dressing gown. Acheson had two suggestions for the speech. First, eliminate the reference to World War II as “the unnecessary war,” which he thought rightwing Republicans would seize upon to justify their opposition to Roosevelt and their continuing isolationism. Second, include some praise for the United Nations as a peacekeeping instrument. When Acheson left, Churchill acceded to the advice. He also showed the speech to Secretary of State James Byrnes, who, Churchill reported, “was excited about it and did not suggest any alterations.”


Both the war against Nazi Germany and efforts to stop the Holocaust were hampered by anti-Semitism. Axis propaganda sought to portray Churchill, who was sympathetic to Zionist aims and had many Jewish friends, as part of a supposed Jewish conspiracy. Nevertheless, Churchill expressed his outrage as the scale of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews became apparent. It was, he said, "probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world." Related Objects
As a political courtesy, Churchill called the White House and inquired if the president wanted to look over a draft of his Fulton speech. The White House replied that Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson would instead call at the British embassy. Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador, had already told Churchill that Acheson not only had a sound diplomatic head but also had a keen ear for the elegant phrase.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk was complete, Churchill had a very specific tone to strike in his speech on June 4. He also had to address a reluctant ally in the United States: Franklin Roosevelt. Much of the American public was still hesitant to get involved in the war, and Roosevelt was trying not to anger the isolationists as he mounted a re-election campaign. But Churchill nevertheless saw an opportunity to make an appeal.

We have, therefore, in this Island today a very large and powerful military force. This force comprises all our best-trained and our finest troops, including scores of thousands of those who have already measured their quality against the Germans and found themselves at no disadvantage. We have under arms at the present time in this Island over a million and a quarter men. Behind these we have the Local Defense Volunteers, numbering half a million, only a portion of whom, however, are yet armed with rifles or other firearms. We have incorporated into our Defense Forces every man for whom we have a weapon. We expect very large additions to our weapons in the near future, and in preparation for this we intend forthwith to call up, drill and train further large numbers. Those who are not called up, or else are employed during the vast business of munitions production in all its branches--and their ramifications are innumerable--will serve their country best by remaining at their ordinary work until they receive their summons. We have also over here Dominions armies. The Canadians had actually landed in France, but have now been safely withdrawn, much disappointed, but in perfect order, with all their artillery and equipment. And these very high-class forces from the Dominions will now take part in the defense of the Mother Country.


For five years I have talked to the House on these matters – not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. [ ... ] Look back upon the last five years – since, that is to say, Germany began to rearm in earnest and openly to seek revenge ... historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind! Now the victors are the vanquished, and those who threw down their arms in the field and sued for an armistice are striding on to world mastery. That is the position – that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit.
Churchill’s place in history is assured; with Hitler he remains a towering political figure of the twentieth century. His courage, determination, and leadership during Britain’s greatest peril mark him for the ages. However unlikely the success of a German invasion of Britain in 1940 now seems—‘‘Overlord in reverse’’—it did not seem so at the time. When some of his fellow Britons and not a few Americans called for capitulation or accommodation, Winston Churchill chomped his cigar, flashed his V-for-victory sign, and uttered a defiant ‘‘No!’’ that echoes down the ages.
In his paper, Churchill envisioned an opening battle in which the alliance of Britain, France, and Russia would confront an attack by the Central Powers of Germany and Austria. In such a situation, Churchill concluded, the decisive military operations would be between France and Germany. “The German army,” he said, “mobilizes 2,200,000 against 1,700,000 for the French.” Germany would attack through neutral Belgium, over the Meuse River, into northern France. “The balance of probability,” predicted Churchill, “is that by the twentieth day the French armies will have been driven from the line of the Meuse and would be falling back on Paris and the south.” He reasoned that the thrust of the German advance would then be weakened because of diminishing supplies and increasing casualties as it pressed southward.
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!
For Churchill to maintain optimism of British victory in the darkest days of World War II required a sense of hope that appeared to civilians and advisors to border on lunacy. In September 1940, German bombers began to appear over London. Hitler changed tactics in his attempt to subdue Great Britain. In the previous two months, the Luftwaffe targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in order to weaken the nation to the point that he could launch a German invasion. When he realized such an offensive launch was impossible, because it would deplete too much manpower from the Eastern front, he switched to a campaign of fear and intimidation. Bombing London to ruin would demoralize the population to the point of hopelessness and surrender.
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, and I can assure them that our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should do so, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory.
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.
Despite Churchill’s meticulous preparation for his speeches, he soon realized – following “a complete disaster” – that learning them by heart was not enough. In the spring of 1904, as he moved further and further away from his old Tory colleagues, his House of Commons experiences were tense and difficult. He became an increasingly isolated figure. On 22 April, making a speech in favour of improving trades union rights, he had been speaking for 45 minutes, without notes as usual, when he forgot his words. He struggled vainly for what he later called “the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life”, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, distraught. Some believed him to be displaying early signs of the same mental decline from which his father Lord Randolph had suffered, and saw this as an appallingly public display of weakening mental faculties. His breakdown was met with jeers from some Tory members, but also with sympathy by others.
The first, flatter version chimes with criticism of the broadcast noted by Mass-Observation. Some said Churchill sounded ‘tired’, others ‘suggested that he was drunk’ (p. 58). According to the BBC, however, the second, livelier version is the one that was broadcast on the evening of 18 June 1940. Worse, still, the BBC archive posts another version of the speech which, in fact, combines portions of this broadcast with Churchill’s ‘The news from France is very bad’ address made the night before. It can be heard here:
He justified the low level of support it had been possible to give to France since Dunkirk, and reported the successful evacuation of most of the supporting forces. He resisted pressure to purge the coalition of appeasers, or otherwise indulge in recrimination. He reviewed the forces still available to prevent or repel any attempted invasion,[b] summing up the review as follows:
Lloyd George’s speech had the desired sobering effect on Germany. Old-fashioned quiet diplomacy—perhaps the last of the nineteenth-century style—resolved the crisis, but the war drums had sounded, and Britain’s military planners had begun contemplating how a war against Germany might be conducted. A few days before a key meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defense, Churchill set down in a long memorandum how a war on the continent would begin. “It was,” Churchill wrote later, “only an attempt to pierce the veil of the future; to conjure up in the mind a vast imaginary situation; to balance the incalculable; to weigh the imponderable.”

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


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.
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