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.’”
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.
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.
Then came the crucial final line, which is often forgotten amidst the cries to battle on beaches and streets. “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,” Churchill said. “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.”
Oddly enough, some people believe that they did hear it on the radio though. Nella Last, a British housewife who kept diaries during the war, wrote in 1947, “I remember that husky, rather stuttering voice acclaiming that we would ‘fight on the beaches, on the streets. I felt my head rise as if galvanised and a feeling that ‘I’ll be there — count on me; I’ll not fail you.'” Even a Dunkirk soldier thought he had heard the speech, writes Smithsonian. Some began to think they heard an impersonator deliver the words.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, with the willing help of countless merchant seamen, strained every nerve to embark the British and Allied troops; 220 light warships and 650 other vessels were engaged. They had to operate upon the difficult coast, often in adverse weather, under an almost ceaseless hail of bombs and an increasing concentration of artillery fire. Nor were the seas, as I have said, themselves free from mines and torpedoes. It was in conditions such as these that our men carried on, with little or no rest, for days and nights on end, making trip after trip across the dangerous waters, bringing with them always men whom they had rescued. The numbers they have brought back are the measure of their devotion and their courage. The hospital ships, which brought off many thousands of British and French wounded, being so plainly marked were a special target for Nazi bombs; but the men and women on board them never faltered in their duty.
As the Allies were learning details of the Nazis' ongoing mass-murder program taking place at the Auschwitz death camp, the greatest Anglo-American action of World War II began: the cross-Channel airborne and amphibious attack known as "D-Day." Churchill enthusiastically supported this operation, long-advocated by the Americans, after some initial hesitation and despite his hopes for an Italian campaign. On June 6, 1944, the Allied Expeditionary Forces landed more than 150,000 British, Canadian, and American troops on the Normandy coast. The invasion, which was code-named "OVERLORD," marked the opening of the final drive to defeat German forces in northwestern Europe. A number of deception measures, outlined by Churchill at the Teheran Conference, helped make D-Day a success. The most important of these was "FORTITUDE SOUTH," the creation of a phantom group of armies that supposedly were to invade the European mainland after the actual Normandy landings. These measures were greatly assisted by the use of highly secret ULTRA intelligence, generated by the British from deciphered radio communications. Related Objects
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.
Here is where we come to the Navy--and after all, we have a Navy. Some people seem to forget that we have a Navy. We must remind them. For the last thirty years I have been concerned in discussions about the possibilities of oversea invasion, and I took the responsibility on behalf of the Admiralty, at the beginning of the last war, of allowing all regular troops to be sent out of the country. That was a very serious step to take, because our Territorials had only just been called up and were quite untrained. Therefore, this Island was for several months particularly denuded of fighting troops. The Admiralty had confidence at that time in their ability to prevent a mass invasion even though at that time the Germans had a magnificent battle fleet in the proportion of 10 to 16, even though they were capable of fighting a general engagement every day and any day, whereas now they have only a couple of heavy ships worth speaking of--the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. We are also told that the Italian Navy is to come out and 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 Strait of Gibraltar in order that he may play the part to which he aspires. There is a 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.
Churchill recommended that Britain send 107,000 men to France at the outbreak of the war; 100,000 troops should depart from India on the first day in order to reach Marseilles by the fortieth day. Churchill circulated the memorandum “with the hope that if the unfavorable prediction about the twentieth day had been borne out, so also would be the favorable prediction about the fortieth day.”
Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honour for me to speak to you tonight. Three weeks ago exactly I was in Moscow, walking through the town house where Churchill met Stalin in October 1944; a magnificent building. I had hoped to bring a photograph of this fine building to show you tonight. Unfortunately my host on that occasion, as I produced my camera to take the photograph, tapped me gently on the shoulder and remarked: “My dear Professor, this is a high security building.”
By the end of 1942, British forces had been victorious in Egypt at the Battle of El Alamein and, along with the Americans, had successfully landed in northwest Africa. At the Casablanca Conference (January 14-24, 1943) Churchill and Roosevelt decided to continue with operations in the Mediterranean once they had driven the Germans and Italians out of North Africa. This decision was in accord with Churchill's preference for an attack through the "under belly of the Axis" instead of a more direct approach through northwest Europe into Germany. The war in the Mediterranean theater continued to dominate Churchill's thoughts in 1943. After many frustrating delays, Allied forces (principally British, American, and French) wiped out the last remaining Axis (German and Italian) troops in North Africa. They exploited this success by undertaking operations in Sicily and from there moved onto the Italian peninsula. Related Objects
However, Smithsonian writes that the most surprising thing, is that Churchill’s speech was not broadcast over the radio to the British public, and that most Britons and Americans did not hear the speech until decades later. And the recording that has been heard round the world was actually recorded in 1949, from the comfort of his own home. The House of Commons was not wired for sound in 1940, so any public broadcast would have to be delivered again, specifically for radio. But Churchill was too busy and uninterested to do this, and so radio journalists just reported his words on the air.
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.
Churchill was writing to Cockran, a Democratic congressman from New York City, about the economic problem of the “trusts,” which was then front and center in American politics. As we shall see, Churchill had strong views about how governments would need to respond to social changes in the twentieth century—indeed, that question was the focus of his early ministerial career—but from his earliest days, even before he entered politics, he saw that the new scale of things in the modern world would be felt most powerfully in the area of warfare. His observations about the “terrible machinery of scientific war” in The River War led him to ask what would happen when two modern nations—not Britain and the Sudanese Dervishes—confronted each other with the modern weapons of war. It was a question no one else was asking.
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:
The ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech was delivered in the House of Commons; it was never broadcast though it was reported on the BBC by an announcer and quoted in the press. However, people claim to remember having heard this famous speech from June 1940, even though they hadn’t. It was recorded for posterity along with others of his wartime speeches nine years later.
To be fair, there is something to Toye’s argument that time has clouded memories of the impact of Churchill’s speeches, especially those delivered in 1940. And here, perhaps, is this book’s greatest missed opportunity: Are the Churchill speeches we hear today, those ‘quotable bits’, the same broadcasts that were made over 70 years ago? This is not to suggest, as have some, that an actor impersonating Churchill delivered the addresses on radio. Toye puts that fairytale to bed early on in his book (p. 11). But in at least one instance, Churchill’s June 1940 ‘Finest Hour’ speech, there are two, and possibly more, versions all purporting to be the original broadcast. That is impossible. Compare, for instance, this version:
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.
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.
In 1911, Churchill turned his attention away from domestic politics when he became the First Lord of the Admiralty (akin to the Secretary of the Navy in the U.S.). Noting that Germany was growing more and more bellicose, Churchill began to prepare Great Britain for war: He established the Royal Naval Air Service, modernized the British fleet and helped invent one of the earliest tanks.
“This was one of the most prescient strategic documents that Churchill ever wrote,” his son Randolph recorded decades later in the official biography. When Arthur Balfour, sometimes a critic of Churchill, re-read this memo shortly after the outbreak of the war in September 1914, he wrote to Churchill’s private secretary, “It is a triumph of prophecy!” More importantly, the Agadir crisis had reawakened in Churchill his previously expressed worries about the prospect of total war between modern nations. It caused him to change his mind about his earlier opposition to a naval buildup. He wrote in retrospect that “although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I were right in the narrow sense [about the number of battleships], we were absolutely wrong in relation to the deep tides of destiny.”1 Churchill’s political focus would now change from domestic to foreign affairs, where it would remain for most of the rest of his life.
In the five years that followed, Churchill’s early liberalism survived only in the form of advocacy of rigid laissez-faire economics; for the rest he appeared, repeatedly, as the leader of the diehards. He had no natural gift for financial administration, and though the noted economist John Maynard Keynes criticized him unsparingly, most of the advice he received was orthodox and harmful. His first move was to restore the gold standard, a disastrous measure, from which flowed deflation, unemployment, and the miners’ strike that led to the general strike of 1926. Churchill offered no remedy except the cultivation of strict economy, extending even to the armed services. Churchill viewed the general strike as a quasi-revolutionary measure and was foremost in resisting a negotiated settlement. He leaped at the opportunity of editing the British Gazette, an emergency official newspaper, which he filled with bombastic and frequently inflammatory propaganda. The one relic of his earlier radicalism was his partnership with Neville Chamberlain as minister of health in the cautious expansion of social services, mainly in the provision of widows’ pensions.
In 1911 Churchill became First Sea Lord, bringing important changes to the Royal Navy. He recognized the potential of the submarine and airplane, learned to fly, and established the Royal Naval Air Service. However, in 1915, during World War I his ambitious strategy for the Dardenelles led to the debacle at Gallipoli. Forced from the cabinet, he cheerfully returned to the army and commanded a Scottish battalion on the western front. He also was a major factor behind development of the armored fighting vehicle—which he named, for all time, the tank.
Clementine Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill (wife) Diana Churchill (daughter) Randolph Churchill (son) Sarah Churchill (daughter) Marigold Churchill (daughter) Mary Soames, Baroness Soames (daughter) Lord Randolph Churchill (father) Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill (mother) Jack Churchill (brother) Descendants John Spencer-Churchill (grandfather) Frances Anne Spencer-Churchill (grandmother) Leonard Jerome (grandfather)
Note, finally, that I have not included other 33 rpm albums which state that they include Churchill speeches or extracts without identifying them. Thus, for example, the BBC Scrapbooks for 1940 and 1945, and several of the Edward R. Murrow I Can Hear It Now albums (issued on 78 rpm and 33 rpm records). I have not been able to listen to them all in order to identify the speeches in question and so have opted to not identify those collections of speeches.
We ask no favours of the enemy. We seek from them no compunction. On the contrary, if tonight the people of London were asked to cast their votes as to whether a convention should be entered into to stop the bombing of all cities, an overwhelming majority would cry, "No, we will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, they have meted out to us." The people of London with one voice would say to Hitler: "You have committed every crime under the sun. Where you have been the least resisted there you have been the most brutal. It was you who began the indiscriminate bombing. We remember Warsaw! In the first few days of the war. We remember Rotterdam. We have been newly reminded of your habits by the hideous massacre in Belgrade. We know too well the bestial assaults you're making upon the Russian people, to whom our hearts go out in their valiant struggle! We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will! You do your worst! - and we will do our best! Perhaps it may be our turn soon. Perhaps it may be our turn now."
Germany had gone to war with the Soviet Union in June, 1941, and by August of 1942, the Soviets were fighting for their lives before Stalingrad. To the disappointment of the Americans and the Soviets, however, Churchill used his considerable influence to postpone launching a Second Front against the Germans in northwest Europe. He wanted to exploit successes in the Mediterranean, and he was concerned that a premature assault on the northern French coast might end in failure. In August 1942, Churchill flew to Moscow to tell Stalin that there would be no Second Front in Western Europe that year to draw off German forces. Stalin condemned the Anglo-American decision to abandon the Second Front. Churchill argued: "War was war but not folly, and it would be folly to invite a disaster which would help nobody." Stalin replied, "A man who was not prepared to take risks could not win a war." Related Objects
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.
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.