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.
“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.”
From the moment that the French defenses at Sedan and on the Meuse were broken at the end of the second week of May, only a rapid retreat to Amiens and the south could have saved the British and French Armies who had entered Belgium at the appeal of the Belgian King; but this strategic fact was not immediately realized. The French High Command hoped they would be able to close the gap, and the Armies of the north were under their orders. Moreover, a retirement of this kind would have involved almost certainly the destruction of the fine Belgian Army of over 20 divisions and the abandonment of the whole of Belgium. Therefore, when the force and scope of the German penetration were realized and when a new French Generalissimo, General Weygand, assumed command in place of General Gamelin, an effort was made by the French and British Armies in Belgium to keep on holding the right hand of the Belgians and to give their own right hand to a newly created French Army which was to have advanced across the Somme in great strength to grasp it.
The train stopped at the St. Louis station in the early morning of March 5. Churchill took a leisurely breakfast in his stateroom before he and the presidential party switched to a local train for Jefferson City. There, Churchill and Truman entered their open-car limousines for the motorcade into Fulton. Churchill found, to his dismay, that he was lacking the requisite prop—a cigar. So he stopped at a local tobacconist for the purchase.
Churchill finally retired in 1955 at the age of eighty-one. He continued writing, speaking, and painting for the next decade, gaining additional honors. His multivolume history The Second World War received the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, but he wrote twenty other histories and biographies as well. That same year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He was made an honorary American citizen in 1963.
Despite the scorn of the army staff, in three years, it would all happen just as Churchill predicted. He gave the twentieth day of the German offensive as the day on which the French armies would be driven from the Meuse and forecasted that the German army’s advance would be stopped on the fortieth. This is exactly what happened, and on the forty-first day, Germany lost the Battle of the Marne, setting the stage for the awful stalemate of trench warfare for the next four years.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been intervening in the battle, so far as its range would allow, from home bases, now used part of its main metropolitan fighter strength, and struck at the German bombers and at the fighters which in large numbers protected them. This struggle was protracted and fierce. Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment-but only for the moment-died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; that is why I go out of my way to say this. I will tell you about it.
That was the prospect a week ago. But another blow which might well have proved final was yet to fall upon us. The King of the Belgians had called upon us to come to his aid. Had not this Ruler and his Government severed themselves from the Allies, who rescued their country from extinction in the late war, and had they not sought refuge in what was proved to be a fatal neutrality, the French and British Armies might well at the outset have saved not only Belgium but perhaps even Poland. Yet at the last moment, when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his brave, efficient Army, nearly half a million strong, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat to the sea. Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.
There is certainly no evidence that any version of the speech, impersonator or not, was broadcast on June 4, 1940. Numerous records detail newsreaders, not Churchill reciting the speech. Regardless, the conspiracy theory spread rapidly. David Irving, a dubious historian and Holocaust denier, ran especially hard with the allegations, claiming Churchill hadn’t really given any of his speeches. A few legitimate historians championed the story as well, but it was thoroughly and repeatedly debunked.
This was such a major speech because it helped convince the US government to focus on the European theatre of war, thus helping Britain rather than focusing on the Pacific theatre. Churchill highlighted the common culture and language and his own American lineage by saying: “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.”
These speeches show what a brilliant and prescient man the world had in Winston Churchill. It is truly tragic that, like so many before and after, people refused to believe his words until too late. Fortunately, there was a happy ending to the story, but not before millions died. Were his words heeded, one must wonder what the outcome might have been.
78 rpm: Gramophone (C3223-5) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, Vol. Two, No. 356] BBC, Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund of U.S.A., Hear It Now I; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 4, Decca 8, London XL.9, Hear It Now I, World Record Club EZ.1026, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca LXT 6200; Tape: Decca KSXC 6200, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, ProArte
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 this ‘Appeal to America’, cast as a speech to the British people but “addressed very largely to American ears” (to summon supplies needed for victory), Churchill demonstrates his skill in varying cadence, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his “stage craft” and a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. The speech also shows off his ability to use simple, direct language to get a very clear message across: "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job".
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.