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!'.
8. Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride. House of Commons, 22 January 1941
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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.
Even so, Churchill’s appointment as minister of munitions in July 1917 was made in the face of a storm of Tory protest. Excluded from the cabinet, Churchill’s role was almost entirely administrative, but his dynamic energies thrown behind the development and production of the tank (which he had initiated at the Admiralty) greatly speeded up the use of the weapon that broke through the deadlock on the Western Front. Paradoxically, it was not until the war was over that Churchill returned to a service department. In January 1919 he became secretary of war. As such he presided with surprising zeal over the cutting of military expenditure. The major preoccupation of his tenure in the War Office was, however, the Allied intervention in Russia. Churchill, passionately anti-Bolshevik, secured from a divided and loosely organized cabinet an intensification and prolongation of the British involvement beyond the wishes of any major group in Parliament or the nation—and in the face of the bitter hostility of labour. And in 1920, after the last British forces had been withdrawn, Churchill was instrumental in having arms sent to the Poles when they invaded the Ukraine.
Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many are the tales that are told. We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous maneuver. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
On the occasion of Churchill’s 80th birthday, Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall to honour him and Churchill was presented with a Graham Sutherland portrait of himself (of which he later said “I think it is malignant”). Beginning his speech by saying the event was “the most memorable occasion of my life”, Churchill acknowledged the role that writing and speech-making had played in his life. He said: “Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar”.
At this point the public address system malfunctioned, but a former army radio technician in uniform sitting under the head table pushed his way through his fellow veterans to find the wire, which he then held to restore the amplification. (Churchill later recorded the speech in its entirety.) The Washington Post reporter, Ed Folliard, who followed only the advance text of the speech, failed to mention the “iron curtain” paragraph in the next day’s paper describing the Iron Curtain speech.
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).
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).
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.
The position of the B. E.F had now become critical As a result of a most skillfully conducted retreat and German errors, the bulk of the British Forces reached the Dunkirk bridgehead. The peril facing the British nation was now suddenly and universally perceived. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo “–the evacuation from Dunkirk began. The seas remained absolutely calm. The Royal Air Force–bitterly maligned at the time by the Army–fought vehemently to deny the enemy the total air supremacy which would have wrecked the operation. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the event, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England, including 26,000 French soldiers. On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons, seeking to check the mood of national euphoria and relief at the unexpected deliverance, and to make a clear appeal to the United States.
Matthews further complains that I too frequently quote negative comments about speeches ‘even when those comments represented “minority feeling”’. But minority feeling is exactly what I was trying to elucidate! No historian need apologise for paying attention to society’s dissidents, because even heretical opinions can illuminate the assumptions of the orthodox. Matthews observes: ‘negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public.’ But my point is exactly that reactions to the speeches cast light on issues far beyond what people happened to think about the man who gave them. I would add further that, perfectly naturally, Churchill’s critics tended to be more expansive in their accounts of why they didn’t like speeches than admirers were in explaining why they did. When I found diary entries that detailed the reasons for approval (such as that of Naomi Royde Smith) I quoted them at length. With respect to the Chips Channon passage that Matthews upbraids me for excluding, it should be noted that I included several other quotations, one from Churchill himself, attesting to the powerful response evoked by the speech in question. Meanwhile, I failed to quote (although I cited) the memoirs of the journalist Paul Einzig, who recalled Tory backbenchers on that occasion remaining ‘seated and silent’ until they received a signal from their Chief Whip, whereupon ‘they rose to a man and burst into enthusiastic cheering at the top of their voices’.(1) Channon’s words, perhaps, were not quite as straightforward as Matthews suggests.
He justified the low level of support it had been possible to give to France since Dunkirk, and reported the successful evacuation of most of the supporting forces. He resisted pressure to purge the coalition of appeasers, or otherwise indulge in recrimination. He reviewed the forces still available to prevent or repel any attempted invasion,[b] summing up the review as follows:
I have thought it right upon this occasion to give the House and the country some indication of the solid, practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war. There are a good many people who say, 'Never mind. Win or lose, sink or swim, better die than submit to tyranny--and such a tyranny.' And I do not dissociate myself from them. But I can assure them that our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should carry on the war, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory. We have fully informed and consulted all the self-governing Dominions, these great communities far beyond the oceans who have been built up on our laws and on our civilization, and who are absolutely free to choose their course, but are absolutely devoted to the ancient Motherland, and who feel themselves inspired by the same emotions which lead me to stake our all upon duty and honor. We have fully consulted them, and I have received from their Prime Ministers, Mr. Mackenzie King of Canada, Mr. Menzies of Australia, Mr. Fraser of New Zealand, and General Smuts of South Africa--that wonderful man, with his immense profound mind, and his eye watching from a distance the whole panorama of European affairs--I have received from all these eminent men, who all have Governments behind them elected on wide franchises, who are all there because they represent the will of their people, messages couched in the most moving terms in which they endorse our decision to fight on, and declare themselves ready to share our fortunes and to persevere to the end. That is what we are going to do.
Sir Winston’s oratorical skills were world famous, and he started developing them at an early age. When he was just 23, he wrote an unpublished paper called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” in which he offered five “principal elements” to win over audiences. With all due respect to Sir Winston’s estimable writing skills, I’ve taken the liberty of extending his 1897 verbiage (bolded) into modern times:
In his paper, Churchill envisioned an opening battle in which the alliance of Britain, France, and Russia would confront an attack by the Central Powers of Germany and Austria. In such a situation, Churchill concluded, the decisive military operations would be between France and Germany. “The German army,” he said, “mobilizes 2,200,000 against 1,700,000 for the French.” Germany would attack through neutral Belgium, over the Meuse River, into northern France. “The balance of probability,” predicted Churchill, “is that by the twentieth day the French armies will have been driven from the line of the Meuse and would be falling back on Paris and the south.” He reasoned that the thrust of the German advance would then be weakened because of diminishing supplies and increasing casualties as it pressed southward.
The domestic labours and battles of his administration were far from Churchill’s main concerns. Derationing, decontrolling, rehousing, safeguarding the precarious balance of payments—these were relatively noncontroversial policies; only the return of nationalized steel and road transport to private hands aroused excitement. Critics sometimes complained of a lack of prime ministerial direction in these areas and, indeed, of a certain slackness in the reins of government. Undoubtedly Churchill was getting older and reserving more and more of his energies for what he regarded as the supreme issues, peace and war. He was convinced that Labour had allowed the transatlantic relationship to sag, and one of his first acts was to visit Washington (and also Ottawa) in January 1952 to repair the damage he felt had been done. The visit helped to check U.S. fears that the British would desert the Korean War, harmonized attitudes toward German rearmament and, distasteful though it was to Churchill, resulted in the acceptance of a U.S. naval commander in chief of the eastern Atlantic. It did not produce that sharing of secrets of atom bomb manufacture that Churchill felt had unfairly lapsed after the war. To the disappointment of many, Churchill’s advocacy of European union did not result in active British participation; his government confined itself to endorsement from the sidelines, though in 1954, faced with the collapse of the European Defense Community, Churchill and Eden came forward with a pledge to maintain British troops on the Continent for as long as necessary.
If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
The House of Commons has lifted our affairs above the mechanical sphere into the human sphere. It thrives on criticism, it is perfectly impervious to newspaper abuse or taunts from any quarter, and it is capable of digesting almost anything or almost any body of gentlemen, whatever be the views with which they arrive. There is no situation to which it cannot address itself with vigour and ingenuity. It is the citadel of British liberty; it is the foundation of our laws; its traditions and its privileges are as lively today it broke the arbitrary power of the Crown and substituted that Constitutional Monarchy under which we have enjoyed so many blessings.
During the 1930s Churchill expressed growing concern over the resurgence of German nationalism. After Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933, the former sea lord urged strengthening the Royal Navy, but few Britons heeded him. However, as the German Führer went from success to success, it became apparent that Nazi ambition could not be contained. Churchill had only contempt for appeasers like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy, but with declaration of war in September 1939 Churchill the warhorse felt justified in returning to harness. When he resumed his position as First Sea Lord after twenty-four years, the Admiralty signaled the fleet, ‘‘Winston is back.’’
When contemplating the whole of Churchill’s great career, it is important to look past the most spectacular chapter— his “finest hour” leading Britain in World War II—and recognize that the central issue of Churchill’s entire career was the problem of scale in war and peace. As his letter to Bourke Cockran— written on his twenty-fifth birthday, a few weeks before he escaped from a Boer POW camp—attests, Churchill saw how changes in technology, wealth, and politics not only would create the conditions for “total war” but also would transform war into an ideological contest over the status of the individual.
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!
In the early 1930s, Churchill no longer had a government position. He seemed out of touch by opposing such positions as giving greater independence to India. He continued to write books and newspaper articles from his house in Kent, but many thought his political career was over. He only came back to notice through his opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi dictatorship in Germany and calls for British rearmament.
It is said that immediately after giving the speech, Churchill muttered to a colleague, "And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!" Nonetheless, Churchill impressed his listeners and the speech was immediately recognised to be historic. One of Churchill's secretaries noted in his diary "A magnificent oration, which obviously moved the House". A Conservative MP wrote in his diary "he was eloquent and oratorical and used magnificent English; several Labour members cried". A Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, 1st Baron Wedgwood, friend and admirer of Churchill since the Dardanelles campaign, wrote to him, "My dear Winston. That was worth 1,000 guns and the speeches of 1,000 years".
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.”