“We shall go on to the end,” Churchill said. “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.”
Reference: Speech to a joint session of the United States Congress, Washington, D.C. (December 26, 1941); reported in Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963, ed. Robert Rhodes James (1974), vol. 6, p. 6541. The Congressional Record reports that this speech was followed by "Prolonged applause, the Members of the Senate and their guests rising"; Congressional Record, vol. 87, p. 10119.
During the journey, Churchill continued to make more changes and corrections to his draft, even though an embargoed text had already been forwarded to press offices and chanceries around the world. In his “Scaffolding of Rhetoric”—notes on the art of speaking that he had written almost half a century earlier—Churchill had emphasized the necessity of a metaphor or image to give a picture to an abstraction. In his draft, Churchill had mentioned “tyranny,” “imperialism,” and “totalitarian systems,” but those words lacked imagery that would stick in his audience’s mind.
When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armored vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past-not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:
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.
People say we ought not to allow ourselves to be drawn into a theoretical antagonism between Nazidom and democracy; but the antagonism is here now. It is this very conflict of spiritual and moral ideas which gives the free countries a great part of their strength. You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. On all sides they are guarded by masses of armed men, cannons, aeroplanes, fortifications, and the like — they boast and vaunt themselves before the world, yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts; words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic. They make frantic efforts to bar our thoughts and words; they are afraid of the workings of the human mind. Cannons, airplanes, they can manufacture in large quantities; but how are they to quell the natural promptings of human nature, which after all these centuries of trial and progress has inherited a whole armoury of potent and indestructible knowledge?
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.
Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund of U.S.A. [no record number] [Sponsored by Who The Magazine about People – it is record No. 2 of a pair of records; the other side of the record is Wendell Willkie’s “A Salute to Winston Churchill”; the companion disc, Record No. 1, sponsored by Voices of Democracy, includes broadcast addresses by King George VI and President Roosevelt]
Mister Speaker, on Friday evening last I received His Majesty's commission to form a new Administration. It was the evident wish and will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties, both those who supported the late Government and also the parties of the Opposition. I have completed the most important part of this task. A War Cabinet has been formed of five Members, representing, with the Liberal Opposition, the unity of the nation. The three party Leaders have agreed to serve, either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office. The three Fighting Services have been filled. It was necessary that this should be done in one single day, on account of the extreme urgency and rigor of events. A number of other key positions were filled yesterday, and I am submitting a further list to His Majesty tonight. I hope to complete the appointment of the principal Ministers during tomorrow. The appointment of the other Ministers usually takes a little longer, but I trust that when Parliament meets again, this part of my task will be completed, and that the administration will be complete in all respects.
Such a moment came in 1911, when Churchill was serving as Home Secretary in the cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Appointed at age thirty-five, he was the second-youngest Home Secretary in history. This post kept Churchill preoccupied with domestic affairs with the never-ending troubles in Ireland. When the navy in 1909 pressed for six new battleships in response to the German buildup, Churchill joined the cabinet opponents in trying to hold the number to four. With typical wit, Churchill described the outcome: “In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached.
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.
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
I am sure it would be sensible to restrict as much as possible the work of these gentlemen, who are capable of doing an immense amount of harm with what may very easily degenerate into charlatanry. The tightest hand should be kept over them, and they should not be allowed to quarter themselves in large numbers among Fighting Services at the public expense.
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.
However, the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north. Eight or nine armored divisions, each of about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut off all communications between us and the main French Armies. It severed our own communications for food and ammunition, which ran first to Amiens and afterwards through Abbeville, and it shore its way up the coast to Boulogne and Calais, and almost to Dunkirk. Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again there plodded comparatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always so ready to be led to the trampling down in other lands of liberties and comforts which they have never known in their own.
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.
The Cold War emerged as the Soviet Union turned Eastern Europe - the invasion route to Russia for centuries - into a military and political buffer between it and the West. Each saw a different reality; The Soviets wanted troops in Eastern Europe to block an attack from the West; the West saw them as a prelude to an attack on the West. Mutual suspicion, misunderstanding, ideological posturing and rhetorical extravagance, and Soviet-style governments in the East locked the two sides in a tense standoff.
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
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.”
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
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.
As War Prime Minister Churchill was tireless in his refusal to surrender Britain to Germany. His now famous speeches were an inspiration to British people to stand firm in the face of adversity. His strong relationship with Roosevelt led to an influx of American supplies to support the war effort. He also maintained an alliance with Stalin following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
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.
In order to appreciate it fully, it’s necessary to grasp the very precise circumstances in which it was delivered on 4 June 1940: shortly after the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, but before France’s final defeat and surrender to the Germans that took place later that month. Here are some facts about this magnificent oration that you may find surprising.
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.