Few failed to recognise Churchill's part in Britain's survival and victory. But after six years of war, people wanted more than just a return to the old order. They wanted reform and reconstruction of Britain. On 26 July 1945, Churchill learned that he and the Unionists (Conservatives) had been rejected by the people. Labour, under Clement Attlee, would govern Britain in the immediate post-war world.
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.
On the first day of 1942, Churchill and Roosevelt, along with representatives of China and the Soviet Union, signed a declaration creating the United Nations. This wartime alliance eventually grew to include twenty-six countries and to form the nucleus for a lasting international organization. For the next year Churchill tried to forge good working relationships with his most important ally, the United States, as well as with the Soviet Union and the Free French led by General Charles de Gaulle. Churchill often differed with the Americans over questions of grand strategy and the future of the British Empire, but he was able to resolve many issues in the course of face-to-face meetings with Roosevelt in Washington and, later, in Casablanca, Morocco. Related Objects
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.
He had been in the habit of totally memorising his speeches. But from this point forward, Churchill decided to forge a system of speech writing that employed copious notes and several revisions. It was this system which helped create the powerful and awe inspiring oratory which Churchill had envisioned as a 23-year-old in 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ and for which Churchill has become famous. So in many ways, it was from this small failure that day in the House of Commons that Churchill’s amazing oratory was born.
Churchill was back in the cabinet by mid-1917 and finished the war as minister of munitions. He opposed postwar accommodations with Indian separatists such as Gandhi and was involved in other international affairs as colonial secretary, including establishment of the Iraqi nation in 1921. Over the next several years he was in and out of Parliament and government, earning an exceptional living from writing.
78 rpm: Gramophone, Historical Recordings 1051A, privately recorded; 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 12, London XL.1, BBC 50 Years, Decca 12, London XL.1, Decca LXT 6200; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, BP PSPMC 037, BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: This England, EMI, ProArte
After he was stricken, the Times commented, “Life is clearly ebbing away, but how long it will be until the crossing of the bar it is impossible to say.” Not for the first time the Times was wrong about Churchill. It was possible to say how long it would be—Churchill had already said it. Colville told the queen’s private secretary, “He won’t die until the 24th.” Though Churchill seldom regained consciousness in the two weeks that followed, he survived to the predicted date. Churchill had survived his father by precisely three score and ten years—the full biblical lifetime—and had fulfilled many of his father’s ambitions as well as his 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.
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.34-36), Gramophone (C3199-201) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, No. 348], BBC; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, Decca 7, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200, London XL.12; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: British Library, BBC 75 Years, BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, ProArte
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’.
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.
The German invasion of the Low Countries, on May 10, 1940, came like a hammer blow on top of the Norwegian fiasco. Chamberlain resigned. He wanted Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, to succeed him, but Halifax wisely declined. It was obvious that Churchill alone could unite and lead the nation, since the Labour Party, for all its old distrust of Churchill’s anti-Socialism, recognized the depth of his commitment to the defeat of Hitler. A coalition government was formed that included all elements save the far left and right. It was headed by a war cabinet of five, which included at first both Chamberlain and Halifax—a wise but also magnanimous recognition of the numerical strength of Chamberlainite conservatism—and two Labour leaders, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. The appointment of Ernest Bevin, a tough trade-union leader, as minister of labour guaranteed cooperation on this vital front. Offers were made to Lloyd George, but he declined them. Churchill himself took, in addition to the leadership of the House of Commons, the Ministry of Defence. The pattern thus set was maintained throughout the war despite many changes of personnel. The cabinet became an agency of swift decision, and the government that it controlled remained representative of all groups and parties. The Prime Minister concentrated on the actual conduct of the war. He delegated freely but also probed and interfered continuously, regarding nothing as too large or too small for his attention. The main function of the chiefs of the armed services became that of containing his great dynamism, as a governor regulates a powerful machine; but, though he prodded and pressed them continuously, he never went against their collective judgment. In all this, Parliament played a vital part. If World War II was strikingly free from the domestic political intrigues of World War I, it was in part because Churchill, while he always dominated Parliament, never neglected it or took it for granted. For him, Parliament was an instrument of public persuasion on which he played like a master and from which he drew strength and comfort.
You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period - I am addressing myself to the School - surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.
Late that night in his stateroom, Churchill surveyed a map of Europe, drawing a black line from the Baltic states to Trieste. By one report, it was then that Churchill added the phrase for which his speech would be known. When the train made its only stop for refueling, Churchill lifted his curtain and saw that they were in Springfield, Illinois, “the home of Lincoln.” Sentimentalists like to believe that the ghost of that other champion of freedom and master of the English language inspired him.
However, he praised the achievements of the Royal Navy during the evacuation and made a particular point of noting the efforts of the RAF. It had been accused of failing to sufficiently protect Allied soldiers waiting on the sand dunes at Dunkirk from the Luftwaffe. Churchill rebuffed this and described the RAF pilots as 'noble knights' and, in doing, so fashioned the myth of the Battle of Britain before it had even taken place.
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.
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.
This brings me, naturally, to the great question of invasion from the air, and of the impending struggle between the British and German Air Forces. It seems quite clear that no invasion on a scale beyond the capacity of our land forces to crush speedily is likely to take place from the air until our Air Force has been definitely overpowered. In the meantime, there may be raids by parachute troops and attempted descents of airborne soldiers. We should be able to give those gentry a warm reception both in the air and on the ground, if they reach it in any condition to continue the dispute. But the great question is: Can we break Hitler's air weapon? Now, of course, it is a very great pity that we have not got an Air Force at least equal to that of the most powerful enemy within striking distance of these shores. But we have a very powerful Air Force which has proved itself far superior in quality, both in men and in many types of machine, to what we have met so far in the numerous and fierce air battles which have been fought with the Germans. In France, where we were at a considerable disadvantage and lost many machines on the ground when they were standing round the aerodromes, we were accustomed to inflict in the air losses of as much as two and two-and-a-half to one. In the fighting over Dunkirk, which was a sort of no-man's-land, we undoubtedly beat the German Air Force, and gained the mastery of the local air, inflicting here a loss of three or four to one day after day. Anyone who looks at the photographs which were published a week or so ago of the re-embarkation, showing the masses of troops assembled on the beach and forming an ideal target for hours at a time, must realize that this re-embarkation would not have been possible unless the enemy had resigned all hope of recovering air superiority at that time and at that place.
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.”
Churchill tried seizing back the initiative with a March 1943 broadcast known as the ‘Four Years’ Plan’. Although its title made it sound more like a speech that would have originated in the Kremlin than in Downing Street, Churchill’s intent was to sketch an outline of Britain’s transition during the first few years of peace. According to Toye, the broadcast allowed Churchill to ‘relieve pressure for immediate reform by paying lip service to its importance’ – at some future date. This may explain why it caused so much confusion and why a government analysis found that public reaction to it was ‘more varied than for any of Churchill’s previous war speeches.’ While one listener called the broadcast ‘almost pure socialism’, the Liberal News Chronicle chastised parts of Churchill’s remarks as ‘typically Tory’ (pp. 203–6). Nor, for that matter, did the speech remove domestic issues from Churchill’s agenda. Before the year was out, a threatened Labour rebellion over demands to nationalise the coal industry forced him to intervene. While making clear that he himself could support such a move, no government, he told the House of Commons, could take such a far-reaching step without first receiving a mandate from the people in a general election (pp. 170–1). That is just what happened in 1945, sweeping both him and the Conservatives from power.
It is said that immediately after giving the speech, Churchill muttered to a colleague, "And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!" Nonetheless, Churchill impressed his listeners and the speech was immediately recognised to be historic. One of Churchill's secretaries noted in his diary "A magnificent oration, which obviously moved the House". A Conservative MP wrote in his diary "he was eloquent and oratorical and used magnificent English; several Labour members cried". A Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, 1st Baron Wedgwood, friend and admirer of Churchill since the Dardanelles campaign, wrote to him, "My dear Winston. That was worth 1,000 guns and the speeches of 1,000 years".
The year 1953 was in many respects a gratifying one for Churchill. It brought the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which drew out all his love of the historic and symbolic. He personally received two notable distinctions, the Order of the Garter and the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, his hopes for a revitalized “special relationship” with Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower during his tenure in the White House, beginning in 1953, were largely frustrated. A sudden stroke in June, which caused partial paralysis, obliged Churchill to cancel a planned Bermuda meeting at which he hoped to secure Eisenhower’s agreement to summit talks with the Russians. By October, Churchill had made a remarkable recovery and the meeting was held in December. But it did not yield results commensurate with Churchill’s hopes. The two leaders, for all their amity, were not the men they once were; their subordinates, John Foster Dulles and Anthony Eden, were antipathetic; and, above all, the role and status of each country had changed. In relation to the Far East in particular there was a persistent failure to see eye to eye. Though Churchill and Eden visited Washington, D.C., in June 1954 in hopes of securing U.S. acceptance of the Geneva Accords designed to bring an end to the war in Indochina, their success was limited. Over Egypt, however, Churchill’s conversion to an agreement permitting a phased withdrawal of British troops from the Suez base won Eisenhower’s endorsement and encouraged hopes, illusory as it subsequently appeared, of good Anglo-American cooperation in this area. In 1955, “arming to parley,” Churchill authorized the manufacture of a British hydrogen bomb while still striving for a summit conference. Age, however, robbed him of this last triumph. His powers were too visibly failing. His 80th birthday, on November 30, 1954, had been the occasion of a unique all-party ceremony of tribute and affection in Westminster Hall. But the tribute implied a pervasive assumption that he would soon retire. On April 5, 1955, his resignation took place, only a few weeks before his chosen successor, Sir Anthony Eden, announced plans for a four-power conference at Geneva.
On May 13 Churchill faced the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister. He warned members of the hard road ahead—“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”—and committed himself and the nation to all-out war until victory was achieved. Behind this simplicity of aim lay an elaborate strategy to which he adhered with remarkable consistency throughout the war. Hitler’s Germany was the enemy; nothing should distract the entire British people from the task of effecting its defeat. Anyone who shared this goal, even a Communist, was an acceptable ally. The indispensable ally in this endeavour, whether formally at war or not, was the United States. The cultivation and maintenance of its support was a central principle of Churchill’s thought. Yet whether the United States became a belligerent partner or not, the war must be won without a repetition for Britain of the catastrophic bloodlettings of World War I; and Europe at the conflict’s end must be reestablished as a viable, self-determining entity, while the Commonwealth should remain as a continuing, if changing, expression of Britain’s world role. Provided these essentials were preserved, Churchill, for all his sense of history, was surprisingly willing to sacrifice any national shibboleths—of orthodox economics, of social convention, of military etiquette or tradition—on the altar of victory. Thus, within a couple of weeks of this crusading anti-Socialist’s assuming power, Parliament passed legislation placing all “persons, their services and their property at the disposal of the Crown”—granting the government in effect the most sweeping emergency powers in modern British history.
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!
I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities. But the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder." My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.
The emotions of the speaker and the listeners are alike aroused. This recommendation addresses a requirement as frequently unmet today as it was in Churchill’s 19th century day and even before that: to align the speaker’s goals with those of the audience. A speech or a presentation is not a broadcast or podcast. The essential scaffold of rhetoric is a two-way street. It’s not just about you, it’s all about them.
The following year was equally crucial, witnessing Germany’s attack on Russia and America’s entry into the war. Churchill had already established a warm relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt and put aside an instinctive dislike and distrust for Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Churchill, a firm anticommunist, knew Stalin for what he was—unlike Roosevelt, who consistently made allowances for the Soviet dictator, fondly calling the genocidal despot ‘‘Uncle Joe.’’ Despite their personal and national differences with respect to communist Russia, Churchill and Roosevelt remained staunch allies throughout the war. They quickly decided on a ‘‘Germany first’’ strategy, but in early 1942 the main threat was from Japan, which was rolling up easy victories in the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya.