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.
Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Germany invaded France and Britain was alone in Europe fighting Hitler. Churchill inspired the country to keep fighting despite the bad circumstances. He also helped to forge an alliance of Allied Powers with the Soviet Union and the United States. Even though he did not like Joseph Stalin and the communists of the Soviet Union, he knew the Allies needed their help to fight Germany.
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.
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.
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
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”.
Thus, when in 1931 the National Government was formed, Churchill, though a supporter, had no hand in its establishment or place in its councils. He had arrived at a point where, for all his abilities, he was distrusted by every party. He was thought to lack judgment and stability and was regarded as a guerrilla fighter impatient of discipline. He was considered a clever man who associated too much with clever men—Birkenhead, Beaverbrook, Lloyd George—and who despised the necessary humdrum associations and compromises of practical politics.
'... 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 ...'
Anyone can see what the position is. The Government simply cannot make up their mind, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years – precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britian – for the locusts to eat.
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'".
After a sensational rise to prominence in national politics before World War I, Churchill acquired a reputation for erratic judgment in the war itself and in the decade that followed. Politically suspect in consequence, he was a lonely figure until his response to Adolf Hitler’s challenge brought him to leadership of a national coalition in 1940. With Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin he then shaped Allied strategy in World War II, and after the breakdown of the alliance he alerted the West to the expansionist threat of the Soviet Union. He led the Conservative Party back to office in 1951 and remained prime minister until 1955, when ill health forced his resignation.
Churchill’s reception reflected his audience’s recognition that a great leader had honored their town and college with his visit rather than their appreciation of the stern message. In Washington and around the world, the speech precipitated a storm of denunciation. Both Truman and Attlee took shelter by disowning Churchill’s message; Truman denied that he had any foreknowledge of what Churchill was going to say.
There are instances in which I hold recordings of speeches that I have not found in commercially-released form. Like all those I list as “privately recorded”, these were cut on flat discs by individuals, as well as by radio stations (although fewer of those have found their way into the hands of the public). In the modern era, we have been recording off-air or in accessible venues on 1/4″ tape cassettes or CDs/DVDs. The recordings indicated as “privately recorded” may also exist in commercially-manufactured form. In some cases I list both. In many instances I do not hold a recording other than in privately recorded form.
Churchill’s essay is a personal, first-hand account of two days of combat, interspersed with personal asides. The aide-de-camp is exhausted after two days: “I am so tired that I can’t write anymore now. I must add that the cavalry reconnaissance party found that there is no enemy to be seen. Now I wish for a good night, as I don’t know when I get another sleep. Man may work. But man must sleep.”
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.)