I thank Professor Matthews for his review, and for the kind words of praise it contains. I am especially grateful for the close attention he has paid to the international dimension of the book, an aspect which other reviewers have not considered in such depth. However, although his criticisms raise serious issues, I am confident of answering all of them. Before I do so in detail, I will make some general points about the argument of the book, which Matthews appears not to have appreciated fully.
These lapses in memory had another interesting permutation: people started believing they had heard not Churchill, but an impersonator, deliver his words. The actor Norman Shelley claimed in 1972 that he had recorded the “fight on the beaches” speech as Churchill for the radio. Shelley voiced several children’s characters for the BBC in the 1930s and 1940s and did impersonate Churchill in at least one recording dated 1942. But it’s unclear if this record was ever put to any use.
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.”
In 1911 the provocative German action in sending a gunboat to Agadir, the Moroccan port to which France had claims, convinced Churchill that in any major Franco-German conflict Britain would have to be at France’s side. When transferred to the Admiralty in October 1911, he went to work with a conviction of the need to bring the navy to a pitch of instant readiness. His first task was the creation of a naval war staff. To help Britain’s lead over steadily mounting German naval power, Churchill successfully campaigned in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history. Despite his inherited Tory views on Ireland, he wholeheartedly embraced the Liberal policy of Home Rule, moving the second reading of the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1912 and campaigning for it in the teeth of Unionist opposition. Although, through his friendship with F.E. Smith (later 1st earl of Birkenhead) and Austen Chamberlain, he did much to arrange the compromise by which Ulster was to be excluded from the immediate effect of the bill, no member of the government was more bitterly abused—by Tories as a renegade and by extreme Home Rulers as a defector.
Anyone can see what the position is. The Government simply cannot make up their mind, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years – precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britian – for the locusts to eat.
Winston Churchill is viewed as a paradigm of public speaking – the epitome of the great orator. New leaders try to emulate him, copying his phrasing, voice projection, rhythm and language; his voice is still recognizable by many from frequently-heard recordings of his speeches. When people talk about the great power of a speech, many will mention Churchill and his famous broadcasts during World War 2 in the summer and autumn of 1940 when he consolidated his reputation as a war leader, with memorable and iconic phrases: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” are words that are part of history and which have passed into everyday usage.
We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. House of Commons (having met in the House of Lords), 28 October 1943
When this Liberal program necessitated high taxation, which in turn provoked the House of Lords to the revolutionary step of rejecting the budget of 1909, Churchill was Lloyd George’s closest ally in developing the provocative strategy designed to clip the wings of the upper chamber. Churchill became president of the Budget League, and his oratorical broadsides at the House of Lords were as lively and devastating as Lloyd George’s own. Indeed Churchill, as an alleged traitor to his class, earned the lion’s share of Tory animosity. His campaigning in the two general elections of 1910 and in the House of Commons during the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which curbed the House of Lords’ powers, won him wide popular acclaim. In the cabinet his reward was promotion to the office of home secretary. Here, despite substantial achievements in prison reform, he had to devote himself principally to coping with a sweeping wave of industrial unrest and violent strikes. Upon occasion his relish for dramatic action led him beyond the limits of his proper role as the guarantor of public order. For this he paid a heavy price in incurring the long-standing suspicion of organized labour.
The Japanese surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought America into the war. Churchill was with the President's special envoy, Averell Harriman, and the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, John Gilbert Winant, when he received the news over the telephone from President Roosevelt. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, making U.S. involvement in Europe inevitable. Related Objects
Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British some of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to "any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States." Related Objects
The peroration – quoted below – even at a moment of great apparent danger to British national survival talks not only of national survival and national interest, but of noble causes (freedom, Christian civilisation, the rights of small nations) for which Britain was fighting and for which Churchill thought the United States should – and given time would – fight.[d] The War Illustrated published the speech with the title "'If the Empire lasts a thousand years men will say, this was their finest hour'".
I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.
Here was the source of my mother’s indomitable spirit which shone strongly even in her last years. I vividly remember one Christmas, when at the age of 79 she fell from the top of her stairs all the way down to the bottom. Not only did she survive, battered and bruised as she was, but she was up and dressed Christmas morning, determined the day would not be ruined. I knew this amazing toughness had been moulded by the events of the Second World War, and along with all her generation, it had been shaped in steel by Churchill’s remarkable speeches.
During the 1930s Churchill would regularly reel off from the back bench the increasing numbers of German weaponry and planes to an un-listening government. He sought to buttress his argument for increasing British preparedness, but his warnings went unheeded. Churchill would later call that period “his years in the wilderness,” yet his exile from power and the clarity of his warnings provided him with the moral authority to lead the nation decisively when he finally became prime minister in May 1940. As he explained in the first volume of his memoirs of the Second World War, “My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me.”
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.
After a sensational rise to prominence in national politics before World War I, Churchill acquired a reputation for erratic judgment in the war itself and in the decade that followed. Politically suspect in consequence, he was a lonely figure until his response to Adolf Hitler’s challenge brought him to leadership of a national coalition in 1940. With Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin he then shaped Allied strategy in World War II, and after the breakdown of the alliance he alerted the West to the expansionist threat of the Soviet Union. He led the Conservative Party back to office in 1951 and remained prime minister until 1955, when ill health forced his resignation.
For the next year Britain held its resolve. It was battered but did not crumble. In fact, the war energized Churchill, who was sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister. Churchill maintained his private strength by taking each day at a time. Churchill resolved that the only way to move past The Darkest Hour was to keep moving. He commented that “success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” Alternatively, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”