In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!
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.
An introduction by the president of the United States would afford Churchill a world stage—whatever the venue. Though the date of the address, March 5, 1946, was half a year away, the opportunity fueled his imagination. He may have been out of office, but he was still the world’s foremost political figure, a man whose words could still command attention in the world’s leading nation. The thought buoyed his spirit, as he resumed his role of Leader of the Opposition.
Churchill was back in the cabinet by mid-1917 and finished the war as minister of munitions. He opposed postwar accommodations with Indian separatists such as Gandhi and was involved in other international affairs as colonial secretary, including establishment of the Iraqi nation in 1921. Over the next several years he was in and out of Parliament and government, earning an exceptional living from writing.
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.
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!'.
This memorandum and other actions of Churchill around the time of the Agadir made the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, realize that Churchill needed a more prominent government post from which to influence the nation’s strategic destiny. Within a few weeks of the resolution of the Agadir crisis, Asquith had elevated Churchill to First Lord of the Admiralty, in which office Churchill introduced a number of forward-looking reforms and innovations that echo down to the present day.
Toye, who has already contributed to the Churchill canon with his acclaimed Churchill’s Empire and a dual study, Lloyd George & Churchill (2), tackles a subject that until now largely has been ignored by other historians. In The Roar of the Lion he examines Churchill’s wartime speeches –how they were written and delivered and, not least, how they were received both at home and abroad, by friend and foe alike. To produce this study, Toye deftly combines secondary source material with archival research, especially in Churchill’s own, often overlooked speech-writing files. The result is a book that is by turns informative, engaging, and, all too often, frustrating.
When Hitler launched his sudden attack on the Soviet Union, Churchill’s response was swift and unequivocal. In a broadcast on June 22, 1941, while refusing to “unsay” any of his earlier criticisms of Communism, he insisted that “the Russian danger…is our danger” and pledged aid to the Russian people. Henceforth, it was his policy to construct a “grand alliance” incorporating the Soviet Union and the United States. But it took until May 1942 to negotiate a 20-year Anglo-Soviet pact of mutual assistance.
This was a great trial of strength between the British and German Air Forces. Can you conceive a greater objective for the Germans in the air than to make evacuation from these beaches impossible, and to sink all these ships which were displayed, almost to the extent of thousands? Could there have been an objective of greater military importance and significance for the whole purpose of the war than this? They tried hard, and they were beaten back; they were frustrated in their task. We got the Army away; and they have paid fourfold for any losses which they have inflicted. Very large formations of German aeroplanes-and we know that they are a very brave race-have turned on several occasions from the attack of one-quarter of their number of the Royal Air Force, and have dispersed in different directions. Twelve aeroplanes have been hunted by two. One aeroplane was driven into the water and cast away by the mere charge of a British aeroplane, which had no more ammunition. All of our types-the Hurricane, the Spitfire and the new Defiant-and all our pilots have been vindicated as superior to what they have at present to face.
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.’”
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.
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.
One of the persistent misconceptions of Churchill is that he was a poor student. It is more accurate to say he was, by his own admission, a rebellious student, often bored with the curriculum and chafing under the standard teaching methods of the time. It was obvious from his earliest days in school that he was extremely bright and facile with the English language, a prodigy at learning history and extending its lessons. Still, he was often “on report,” or ranked near the bottom of his class at the end of the term.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, 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 the dark early days of the Second World War Churchill had few real weapons. He attacked with words instead. The speeches he delivered then are among the most powerful ever given in the English language. His words were defiant, heroic and human, lightened by flashes of humour. They reached out to everyone in Britain, across Nazi-occupied Europe, and throughout the world. As journalist Beverley Nichols wrote, 'He took the English language and sent it into battle.'
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.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Churchill bounced from government job to government job, and in 1924 he rejoined the Conservatives. Especially after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Churchill spent a great deal of time warning his countrymen about the perils of German nationalism, but Britons were weary of war and reluctant to get involved in international affairs again.
In Miami, Churchill completed his first draft, writing mostly on the sunny terrace outside the living room. During his stay, he spoke on the need for Anglo-American unity at the University of Miami, where, after receiving his honorary doctorate, he made this comment: “Perhaps no one has ever passed so few examinations and received so many degrees.”
Sir, to form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations have to be made here at home. In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make all allowances for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
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.
Nearly every politician and military commander associated with the 1898 Sudan campaign regarded it as just another in a series of minor military skirmishes or border clashes necessary to maintaining the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. The era of epic continental warfare—of megalomaniacal ambition like that of Napoleon or Louis XIV—was thought to be over. “It seemed inconceivable,” Churchill wrote later in The World Crisis, “that the same series of tremendous events, through which since the days of Queen Elizabeth we had three times made our way successfully, should be repeated a fourth time and on an immeasurably larger scale.”
For Churchill to maintain optimism of British victory in the darkest days of World War II required a sense of hope that appeared to civilians and advisors to border on lunacy. In September 1940, German bombers began to appear over London. Hitler changed tactics in his attempt to subdue Great Britain. In the previous two months, the Luftwaffe targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in order to weaken the nation to the point that he could launch a German invasion. When he realized such an offensive launch was impossible, because it would deplete too much manpower from the Eastern front, he switched to a campaign of fear and intimidation. Bombing London to ruin would demoralize the population to the point of hopelessness and surrender.
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.
English: Yalta summit in February 1945 with (from left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Also present are USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (far left); Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, RN, Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal, RAF, (standing behind Churchill); George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, (standing behind Roosevelt).
We have, therefore, in this Island today a very large and powerful military force. This force comprises all our best-trained and our finest troops, including scores of thousands of those who have already measured their quality against the Germans and found themselves at no disadvantage. We have under arms at the present time in this Island over a million and a quarter men. Behind these we have the Local Defense Volunteers, numbering half a million, only a portion of whom, however, are yet armed with rifles or other firearms. We have incorporated into our Defense Forces every man for whom we have a weapon. We expect very large additions to our weapons in the near future, and in preparation for this we intend forthwith to call up, drill and train further large numbers. Those who are not called up, or else are employed during the vast business of munitions production in all its branches--and their ramifications are innumerable--will serve their country best by remaining at their ordinary work until they receive their summons. We have also over here Dominions armies. The Canadians had actually landed in France, but have now been safely withdrawn, much disappointed, but in perfect order, with all their artillery and equipment. And these very high-class forces from the Dominions will now take part in the defense of the Mother Country.
In the House of Commons, some members were moved to tears, but by no means all of them. Although the Dunkirk evacuation had been a remarkable success in its own terms, it had only been necessary because of the sweeping German victories that had humiliated Britain and her allies. Churchill rightly acknowledged that what had happened in France and Belgium had been ‘a colossal military disaster’. The Labour MP Emanuel Shinwell recalled:We were very much depressed as a result of the events that led to him making this speech, and all his oratory could not remove that depression.