Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister on 10 May, 1940, eight months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. He had done so as the head of a multiparty coalition government, which had replaced the previous government (led by Neville Chamberlain) as a result of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war, demonstrated by the Norway debate on the Allied evacuation of Southern Norway.[1]
Here we see the significance of Churchill’s remark that he was confident that Britain could continue the war for years, ‘if necessary alone’. At this point the French were still in the war, so the hint that they might drop out was alarming to many. Churchill’s warning was timely and necessary but, by the same token, the concern that it generated was also wholly understandable. It may well be true that millions of people were, at the same time, galvanised and invigorated by the speech. But the recorded reactions of contemporaries show us that Churchill’s task was in some ways more complicated than is generally credited. 

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:

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 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 maneuver. 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. 

In Miami, Churchill completed his first draft, writing mostly on the sunny terrace outside the living room. During his stay, he spoke on the need for Anglo-American unity at the University of Miami, where, after receiving his honorary doctorate, he made this comment: “Perhaps no one has ever passed so few examinations and received so many degrees.”
Some people will ask why, then, was it that the British Navy was not able to prevent the movement of a large army from Germany into Norway across the Skagerrak? But the conditions in the Channel and in the North Sea are in no way like those which prevail in the Skagerrak. In the Skagerrak, because of the distance, we could give no air support to our surface ships, and consequently, lying as we did close to the enemy's main air power, we were compelled to use only our submarines. We could not enforce the decisive blockade or interruption which is possible from surface vessels. Our submarines took a heavy toll but could not, by themselves, prevent the invasion of Norway. In the Channel and in the North Sea, on the other hand, our superior naval surface forces, aided by our submarines, will operate with close and effective air assistance.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
Matthews further complains that I too frequently quote negative comments about speeches ‘even when those comments represented “minority feeling”’. But minority feeling is exactly what I was trying to elucidate! No historian need apologise for paying attention to society’s dissidents, because even heretical opinions can illuminate the assumptions of the orthodox. Matthews observes: ‘negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public.’ But my point is exactly that reactions to the speeches cast light on issues far beyond what people happened to think about the man who gave them. I would add further that, perfectly naturally, Churchill’s critics tended to be more expansive in their accounts of why they didn’t like speeches than admirers were in explaining why they did. When I found diary entries that detailed the reasons for approval (such as that of Naomi Royde Smith) I quoted them at length. With respect to the Chips Channon passage that Matthews upbraids me for excluding, it should be noted that I included several other quotations, one from Churchill himself, attesting to the powerful response evoked by the speech in question. Meanwhile, I failed to quote (although I cited) the memoirs of the journalist Paul Einzig, who recalled Tory backbenchers on that occasion remaining ‘seated and silent’ until they received a signal from their Chief Whip, whereupon ‘they rose to a man and burst into enthusiastic cheering at the top of their voices’.(1) Channon’s words, perhaps, were not quite as straightforward as Matthews suggests.
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.
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.)
On 1 October 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain following his meeting with Hitler, pledging that Britain and Germany would never again go to war, and was welcomed with unanimous congratulation, the “usual ... and invariable tributes”. Churchill, however, stood alone against him. This damning speech stands in stark contrast to the praise being heaped upon the Prime Minister. “I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget ... we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat ... All is over ... We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude”. Many people felt strongly that Churchill was wrong. Here Eric Long writes to Churchill after this speech about their differences: “You may rest assured that while I may disagree with the principle as to whether Germany would go to war or not, that appears to be over now and we have got to fight for all we are worth to see that no such situation arises again”. Churchill's speech notes are laid out in ‘psalm style’ to prevent him losing his place and to aid his delivery (his secretaries became skilled in setting out his speech notes in this way).
English: Yalta summit in February 1945 with (from left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Also present are USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (far left); Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, RN, Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal, RAF, (standing behind Churchill); George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, (standing behind Roosevelt).
…1941, Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill announced the formation of the United Nations, a wartime alliance of 26 nations. In 1943 Roosevelt began planning the organization of a postwar United Nations, meeting with congressional leaders to assure bipartisan support. The public supported Roosevelt’s efforts, and that fall Congress passed resolutions…

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.
We have found it necessary to take measures of increasing stringency, not only against enemy aliens and suspicious characters of other nationalities, but also against British subjects who may become a danger or a nuisance should the war be transported to the United Kingdom. I know there are a great many people affected by the orders which we have made who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very sorry for them, but we cannot, at the present time and under the present stress, draw all the distinctions which we should like to do. If parachute landings were attempted and fierce fighting attendant upon them followed, these unfortunate people would be far better out of the way, for their own sakes as well as for ours. There is, however, another class, for which I feel not the slightest sympathy. Parliament has given us the powers to put down Fifth Column activities with a strong hand, and we shall use those powers subject to the supervision and correction of the House, without the slightest hesitation until we are satisfied, and more than satisfied, that this malignancy in our midst has been effectively stamped out.
The Wehrmacht next moved against the cut-off Allied forces, moving along the seacoast with only small Allied forces to resist them. After the capitulation of Belgium on 28 May, a gap had also appeared on the eastern flank of the Allied forces, which had been forced to retreat into a small pocket around the seaport of Dunkirk. From this pocket the bulk of the BEF and a considerable number of French troops had been evacuated in Operation Dynamo, but these troops had left behind virtually all of their heavy equipment (transport, tanks, artillery and ammunition). The French First Army had most of its units pocketed around Lille. Those of its units evacuated from Dunkirk were relanded in France but saw no further action; they were still being reorganised in Brittany at the fall of France.[3]
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.
Once it is grasped that I am neither criticising Churchill nor rubbishing his speeches, then Matthews’s critique of my work loses its force. He claims I say that Churchill did not ‘rally the nation’, whereas in fact I write that he was not the sole person who had the capacity to do so. There were a range of other radio speakers who also went down very well, and Churchill should be viewed ‘as the outstanding performer in a rhetorical chorus – or rather a series of talented soloists – dedicated to delivering the same central messages’ (p. 44). In commenting on Churchill’s commendable political visibility versus Hitler’s silence when things went wrong, Matthews ignores the fact that I make exactly the same point myself (p. 230). He suggests that I fail to place Churchill’s oratorical skills in the context of his leadership more generally. But I say that ‘it was clearly possible for Churchill supporters to be depressed, concerned or confused by the contents of a speech without this shaking their faith in him as a leader […] expressing disappointment with a speech did not necessarily imply fundamental dissatisfaction with Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 228). Matthews also takes the view that to say that Churchill’s popularity oscillated as the war situation varied is to state the obvious. Doubtless it should be obvious, but surely a key part of the myth of 1940 is that Churchill made everyone feel great even when – perhaps especially when – things were going disastrously wrong.

Although President Harry Truman quickly took the measure of the Soviet Union, it was not yet clear whether the United States would embrace a role as the leader of the free world or would link arms with Britain and other Western European nations in a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. The status and intentions of Soviet forces in Iran and Eastern Europe were uncertain. There was the prospect of Communist takeovers of the governments of France, Italy, and Spain. America was rapidly demobilizing after the victory over Japan barely six months before, and Americans were looking forward to the material blessings of peace. Churchill knew his warning would cast a pall over the mood of the nation.

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