In this speech, Churchill had to describe a great military disaster, and warn of a possible invasion attempt by the Nazis, without casting doubt on eventual victory. He also had to prepare his domestic audience for France's falling out of the war without in any way releasing France to do so, and wished to reiterate a policy and an aim unchanged – despite the intervening events – from his speech of 13 May, in which he had declared the goal of "victory, however long and hard the road may be".
Having said all that, The Roar of the Lion is a valuable addition to the study of Churchill’s wartime premiership and demonstrates that there is still much to say about the man and his work. What is remarkable is not the number of complaints that contemporary listeners registered about this or that speech, but the number of times Churchill hit his mark. That was never more true than during the early days of the Blitz when his broadcasts helped reassure the British people. The novelist Naomi Royde Smith put it best when she described one of those broadcasts in September in 1940. ‘The statement of facts made’, she wrote in her diary, ‘the danger is presented, [and] long successions of monosyllables beat on in the ear like the sound of an army marching to drums ... It sounds simple enough, but how few men can do it’ (p. 74).
The speech takes on an inexorable rhythm, which coupled with the use of repetition, acquires a kind of imperial power reminiscent of Shakespeare. The extraordinary potency of these words transformed the nation. It filled everyone who heard it with faith and conviction, and it enabled our small island to withstand pure evil. It somehow reaches into the very soul of England and calls up that lion spirit which lies dormant within every English heart.
A Dunkirk veteran even conjured a false memory. The August 1965 issue of National Geographic shares the story of a Scottish man named Hugh, who took three vacation days to attend Churchill’s funeral. “The Nazis kicked my unit to death,” he recalled. “We left everything behind when we got out; some of my men didn’t even have boots. They dumped us along the roads near Dover, and all of us were scared and dazed, and the memory of the Panzers could set us screaming at night. Then he [Churchill] got on the wireless and said that we’d never surrender. And I cried when I heard him… And I thought to hell with the Panzers, WE’RE GOING TO WIN!”
For the purposes of his study, Toye also disregards public opinion surveys because most were ‘not directed to the reception of speeches per se but to approval/disapproval of Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 227). The fault, though, is with his premise, that Churchill’s oratory, and its impact, can be assessed in isolation. Toye admits as much when, at the end of his book, he quotes a December 1942 MO report. According to this assessment, Churchill’s personal popularity along with reaction to his speeches, rose or fell in ‘very close association with the general feelings of cheerfulness or depression about the war situation’ (p. 227). Which is rather stating the obvious.
Expecting that the German offensive would develop along much the same lines as it did in 1914, the lines of communication of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not run through the "short crossing" Channel ports – Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, etc. – but rather through Dieppe and Le Havre. On 13 May, the Wehrmacht's attack through the Ardennes had reached the Meuse River at Sedan and then crossed it, breaking through the defences of the French Army. By 20 May, Wehrmacht armoured divisions had reached the coast of the English Channel, splitting the BEF and the French First Army from the main French forces.
Churchill Speeches WW2