Few people, when they hear the speech on radio or TV documentaries, are aware that they are listening to Churchill speaking not in 1940 but nine years later.Strangely, though, there is a popular myth that the speech was broadcast at the time, not by Churchill himself, but by an actor, Norman Shelley. Shelley did make a phonograph recording of a different Churchill speech in the aftermath of the 1942 victory at El Alamein although what use was made of it, if any, is unknown. He never claimed to have impersonated the Prime Minister over the airwaves, and though many historians have pointed out that the story is false, it seems impossible to kill it.
My mistake, however, highlights an important point. In my view, the correct procedure is to build up the story of the speeches from the surviving contemporary evidence, however problematic it may be. Others however – and I fear that Matthews falls within this category – take what we ‘know’ about the impact of Churchill’s speeches as a starting point and then seek to explain away all the evidence that conflicts with it. If we are to reach a full understanding of the complexity of Churchill as a historical figure, and the true sources of his rhetorical strength, we need to begin by rescuing him from the well-intentioned reductionism of his latter-day admirers.
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.
In the most famous passage of his speech, Churchill warned Britain about the possible collapse of France and that, consequently, she would stand alone against Germany and face an invasion. He left the House in no doubt what the resolution would be should that occur: 'We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!'.
In any age and time a man of Churchill’s force and talents would have left his mark on events and society. A gifted journalist, a biographer and historian of classic proportions, an amateur painter of talent, an orator of rare power, a soldier of courage and distinction, Churchill, by any standards, was a man of rare versatility. But it was as a public figure that he excelled. His experience of office was second only to Gladstone’s, and his gifts as a parliamentarian hardly less, but it was as a wartime leader that he left his indelible imprint on the history of Britain and on the world. In this capacity, at the peak of his powers, he united in a harmonious whole his liberal convictions about social reform, his deep conservative devotion to the legacy of his nation’s history, his unshakable resistance to tyranny from the right or from the left, and his capacity to look beyond Britain to the larger Atlantic community and the ultimate unity of Europe. A romantic, he was also a realist, with an exceptional sensitivity to tactical considerations at the same time as he unswervingly adhered to his strategical objectives. A fervent patriot, he was also a citizen of the world. An indomitable fighter, he was a generous victor. Even in the transition from war to peace, a phase in which other leaders have often stumbled, he revealed, at an advanced age, a capacity to learn and to adjust that was in many respects superior to that of his younger colleagues.
Although Churchill laid down the burdens of office amid the plaudits of the nation and the world, he remained in the House of Commons (declining a peerage) to become “father of the house” and even, in 1959, to fight and win yet another election. He also published another major work, A History of the English- Speaking Peoples, four volumes (1956–58). But his health declined, and his public appearances became rare. On April 9, 1963, he was accorded the unique distinction of having an honorary U.S. citizenship conferred on him by an act of Congress. His death at his London home in January 1965 was followed by a state funeral at which almost the whole world paid tribute. He was buried in the family grave in Bladon churchyard, Oxfordshire.
In casting up this dread balance-sheet, contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair. During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced,...nothing but disaster and disappointment, and yet at the end their morale was higher than that of the Germans, who had moved from one aggressive triumph to another. During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question, "How are we going to win?" and no one was able ever to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us.
Some of us who were not born then only hear about these leaders. We marvel at their courage, determination, integrity and intelligence. Times have changed, but if we ever had Sir Winston Churchchill with us today, I am sure he would have been the leader the world had then. Not only Great Britan but the world should honor such a illustrious individual.
Important as these later speeches were, Churchill’s reputation as an orator still largely rests on the ones he gave during the war’s early years. And that is where the trouble lies with this book. According to Toye, a ‘powerful myth’ envelops Churchill’s role in the war, one in which through his speeches alone he rallied the British people by making them ‘feel the same way’ or by putting ‘into words what they were all feeling but could not express themselves’. This myth, he explains, is ‘crucial’, not least when it comes to the ‘popular image of the summer of 1940'. In fact, says Toye, historians would have us believe that whenever Churchill spoke ‘people were reduced to a condition of helpless ecstasy every time he opened his mouth’ (p. 3–4, 227–8).
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.39), Gramophone (C3204) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, No. 348], BBC; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca 8, London XL.10; Tape: Hodder; CD: Sunday Express, Hodder, BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, ProArte, Argo 1118
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.’”
When Neville Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin, the gulf between the Cassandra-like Churchill and the Conservative leaders widened. Repeatedly the accuracy of Churchill’s information on Germany’s aggressive plans and progress was confirmed by events; repeatedly his warnings were ignored. Yet his handful of followers remained small; politically, Chamberlain felt secure in ignoring them. As German pressure mounted on Czechoslovakia, Churchill without success urged the government to effect a joint declaration of purpose by Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. When the Munich Agreement with Hitler was made in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, Churchill laid bare its implications, insisting that it represented “a total and unmitigated defeat.” In March 1939 Churchill and his group pressed for a truly national coalition, and, at last, sentiment in the country, recognizing him as the nation’s spokesman, began to agitate for his return to office. As long as peace lasted, Chamberlain ignored all such persuasions.