But curiously, some began believing they had. Toye points to Nella Last, a British housewife who kept meticulous diaries during the war. She had originally written on the day of the speech, “We all listened to the news and the account of the Prime Minister’s speech and all felt grave and rather sad about things unsaid rather than said.” But by 1947, her recollection had shifted. “I remember that husky, rather stuttering voice acclaiming that we would ‘fight on the beaches, on the streets,’” she wrote. “I felt my head rise as if galvanised and a feeling that ‘I’ll be there -- count on me; I’ll not fail you.’”
The effort was designed to match the gravity of the hour. After the Allied defeat and the evacuation of the battered British forces from Dunkirk, Churchill warned Parliament that invasion was a real risk to be met with total and confident defiance. Faced with the swift collapse of France, Churchill made repeated personal visits to the French government in an attempt to keep France in the war, culminating in the celebrated offer of Anglo-French union on June 16, 1940. When all this failed, the Battle of Britain began on July 10. Here Churchill was in his element, in the firing line—at fighter headquarters, inspecting coast defenses or antiaircraft batteries, visiting scenes of bomb damage or victims of the “blitz,” smoking his cigar, giving his V sign, or broadcasting frank reports to the nation, laced with touches of grim Churchillian humour and splashed with Churchillian rhetoric. The nation took him to its heart; he and they were one in “their finest hour.”
Note, finally, that I have not included other 33 rpm albums which state that they include Churchill speeches or extracts without identifying them. Thus, for example, the BBC Scrapbooks for 1940 and 1945, and several of the Edward R. Murrow I Can Hear It Now albums (issued on 78 rpm and 33 rpm records). I have not been able to listen to them all in order to identify the speeches in question and so have opted to not identify those collections of speeches.
Although President Harry Truman quickly took the measure of the Soviet Union, it was not yet clear whether the United States would embrace a role as the leader of the free world or would link arms with Britain and other Western European nations in a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. The status and intentions of Soviet forces in Iran and Eastern Europe were uncertain. There was the prospect of Communist takeovers of the governments of France, Italy, and Spain. America was rapidly demobilizing after the victory over Japan barely six months before, and Americans were looking forward to the material blessings of peace. Churchill knew his warning would cast a pall over the mood of the nation.
4. 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 on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. House of Commons, 4 June 1940
This would present a serious difficulty if the diarists had only reported their own thoughts, but in fact they also reported the opinions of others around them. […] Of course, those who disliked Churchill may have been biased in terms of what they recorded. But, crucially, some people who did like Churchill’s speeches recorded that others didn’t, and expressed their surprise at this. Taken in combination with survey evidence – with which they often correlate – diaries can be a potent source. Although they cannot by themselves provide definitive evidence of how many people held a particular opinion about Churchill’s speeches, they do give a good illustration of the range of views that were held. (pp. 8–9)
Churchill tried seizing back the initiative with a March 1943 broadcast known as the ‘Four Years’ Plan’. Although its title made it sound more like a speech that would have originated in the Kremlin than in Downing Street, Churchill’s intent was to sketch an outline of Britain’s transition during the first few years of peace. According to Toye, the broadcast allowed Churchill to ‘relieve pressure for immediate reform by paying lip service to its importance’ – at some future date. This may explain why it caused so much confusion and why a government analysis found that public reaction to it was ‘more varied than for any of Churchill’s previous war speeches.’ While one listener called the broadcast ‘almost pure socialism’, the Liberal News Chronicle chastised parts of Churchill’s remarks as ‘typically Tory’ (pp. 203–6). Nor, for that matter, did the speech remove domestic issues from Churchill’s agenda. Before the year was out, a threatened Labour rebellion over demands to nationalise the coal industry forced him to intervene. While making clear that he himself could support such a move, no government, he told the House of Commons, could take such a far-reaching step without first receiving a mandate from the people in a general election (pp. 170–1). That is just what happened in 1945, sweeping both him and the Conservatives from power.
Churchill was decidedly more circumspect when it came to domestic British politics, in particular when the subject was post-war reconstruction. For good reason. Though leader of the Conservative Party from October 1940, he was also ‘national leader’ of a coalition government. This forced Churchill to maintain a delicate balance in the House of Commons where Tory MPs still held a majority of seats, but where his administration depended on the participation of both Labour and the Liberals. Conveniently, for Churchill, he could argue that it was premature to talk of what would happen after victory. To his mind, the important thing – indeed, the only thing – that mattered was winning the war. After the triumph at El Alamein, soon followed by Sir William Beveridge’s report on the future of social services, that position was no longer tenable. A post-war Britain could be detected just over the horizon, and the Beveridge Report laid out a blueprint for how that Britain could be a very different nation from the one that had emerged after the last world war.
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.
Some people will ask why, then, was it that the British Navy was not able to prevent the movement of a large army from Germany into Norway across the Skagerrak? But the conditions in the Channel and in the North Sea are in no way like those which prevail in the Skagerrak. In the Skagerrak, because of the distance, we could give no air support to our surface ships, and consequently, lying as we did close to the enemy's main air power, we were compelled to use only our submarines. We could not enforce the decisive blockade or interruption which is possible from surface vessels. Our submarines took a heavy toll but could not, by themselves, prevent the invasion of Norway. In the Channel and in the North Sea, on the other hand, our superior naval surface forces, aided by our submarines, will operate with close and effective air assistance.
'... 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 ...'
During the last few days we have successfully brought off the great majority of the troops we had on the line of communication in France; and seven-eighths of the troops we have sent to France since the beginning of the war--that is to say, about 350,000 out of 400,000 men--are safely back in this country. Others are still fighting with the French, and fighting with considerable success in their local encounters against the enemy. We have also brought back a great mass of stores, rifles and munitions of all kinds which had been accumulated in France during the last nine months.
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 remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities. But the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder." My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.
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 order to appreciate it fully, it’s necessary to grasp the very precise circumstances in which it was delivered on 4 June 1940: shortly after the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, but before France’s final defeat and surrender to the Germans that took place later that month. Here are some facts about this magnificent oration that you may find surprising.
While shaving one morning in 1953, Churchill remarked to John Colville, “Today is the 24th of January. It’s the day my father died. It’s the day I shall die, too.” He repeated this prediction to his son-in-law Christopher Soames shortly after his ninetieth birthday, in 1964. A few weeks later, on January 10, 1965, Churchill lapsed into a coma. Earlier that evening, during the nightly ritual of brandy and cigars, he had said to Soames, “It has been a grand journey, well worth making.” He paused and added, “once.”