Thus if Matthews finds my book frustrating, I feel the same way about some aspects of his review. This is especially the case when it comes to the methodological points. Matthews raises valid issues, without recognising the explicit ways I address them in the book. Thus he comments that Mass-Observation (MO) diarists often ‘sound like a ready-made awkward squad’. Indeed they do, but as I say in the book’s introduction:
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.
[O]ur loyal, brave people ... should know the truth. ... they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, ... and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies; ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proferred to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

In 1929, when the government fell, Churchill, who would have liked a Tory-Liberal reunion, deplored Baldwin’s decision to accept a minority Labour government. The next year an open rift developed between the two men. On Baldwin’s endorsement of a Round Table Conference with Indian leaders, Churchill resigned from the shadow cabinet and threw himself into a passionate, at times almost hysterical, campaign against the Government of India bill (1935) designed to give India dominion status.


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.
The first, flatter version chimes with criticism of the broadcast noted by Mass-Observation. Some said Churchill sounded ‘tired’, others ‘suggested that he was drunk’ (p. 58). According to the BBC, however, the second, livelier version is the one that was broadcast on the evening of 18 June 1940. Worse, still, the BBC archive posts another version of the speech which, in fact, combines portions of this broadcast with Churchill’s ‘The news from France is very bad’ address made the night before. It can be heard here:
These speeches show what a brilliant and prescient man the world had in Winston Churchill. It is truly tragic that, like so many before and after, people refused to believe his words until too late. Fortunately, there was a happy ending to the story, but not before millions died. Were his words heeded, one must wonder what the outcome might have been.
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.
I spoke the other day of the colossal military disaster which occurred when the French High Command failed to withdraw the northern Armies from Belgium at the moment when they knew that the French front was decisively broken at Sedan and on the Meuse. This delay entailed the loss of fifteen or sixteen French divisions and threw out of action for the critical period the whole of the British Expeditionary Force. Our Army and 120,000 French troops were indeed rescued by the British Navy from Dunkirk but only with the loss of their cannon, vehicles and modern equipment. This loss inevitably took some weeks to repair, and in the first two of those weeks the battle in France has been lost. When we consider the heroic resistance made by the French Army against heavy odds in this battle, the enormous losses inflicted upon the enemy and the evident exhaustion of the enemy, it may well be the thought that these 25 divisions of the best-trained and best-equipped troops might have turned the scale. However, General Weygand had to fight without them. Only three British divisions or their equivalent were able to stand in the line with their French comrades. They have suffered severely, but they have fought well. We sent every man we could to France as fast as we could re-equip and transport their formations.
Almost a year has passed since I came down here at your Head Master's kind invitation in order to cheer myself and cheer the hearts of a few of my friends by singing some of our own songs. The ten months that have passed have seen very terrible catastrophic events in the world - ups and downs, misfortunes - but can anyone sitting here this afternoon, this October afternoon, not feel deeply thankful for what has happened in the time that has passed and for the very great improvement in the position of our country and of our home? Why, when I was here last time we were quite alone, desperately alone, and we had been so for five or six months. We were poorly armed. We are not so poorly armed today; but then we were very poorly armed. We had the unmeasured menace of the enemy and their air attack still beating upon us, and you yourselves had had experience of this attack; and I expect you are beginning to feel impatient that there has been this long lull with nothing particular turning up!

[O]ur loyal, brave people ... should know the truth. ... they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, ... and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies; ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proferred to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.


We intend to fight this thing through to a finish and to victory however long it may take …. Come what may, Britain will not flinch …. We, over here know full well that difficult times are ahead …. We have taken the measure of our foe [. . .] Knowing all that, we are in it and, in it to stay. The proposition is simple: It is whether the kind of world we know in Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Britain and the Americas is to survive, or whether most of the progress made by human kind since the Dark Ages is to be wiped out. For her part Britain intends to fight until Germany’s power for evil has been broken. Give in—NEVER!
When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armored vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past-not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:
Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.

The young Churchill passed an unhappy and sadly neglected childhood, redeemed only by the affection of Mrs. Everest, his devoted nurse. At Harrow his conspicuously poor academic record seemingly justified his father’s decision to enter him into an army career. It was only at the third attempt that he managed to pass the entrance examination to the Royal Military College, now Academy, Sandhurst, but, once there, he applied himself seriously and passed out (graduated) 20th in a class of 130. In 1895, the year of his father’s tragic death, he entered the 4th Hussars. Initially the only prospect of action was in Cuba, where he spent a couple of months of leave reporting the Cuban war of independence from Spain for the Daily Graphic (London). In 1896 his regiment went to India, where he saw service as both soldier and journalist on the North-West Frontier (1897). Expanded as The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), his dispatches attracted such wide attention as to launch him on the career of authorship that he intermittently pursued throughout his life. In 1897–98 he wrote Savrola (1900), a Ruritanian romance, and got himself attached to Lord Kitchener’s Nile expeditionary force in the same dual role of soldier and correspondent. The River War (1899) brilliantly describes the campaign.


The young Churchill passed an unhappy and sadly neglected childhood, redeemed only by the affection of Mrs. Everest, his devoted nurse. At Harrow his conspicuously poor academic record seemingly justified his father’s decision to enter him into an army career. It was only at the third attempt that he managed to pass the entrance examination to the Royal Military College, now Academy, Sandhurst, but, once there, he applied himself seriously and passed out (graduated) 20th in a class of 130. In 1895, the year of his father’s tragic death, he entered the 4th Hussars. Initially the only prospect of action was in Cuba, where he spent a couple of months of leave reporting the Cuban war of independence from Spain for the Daily Graphic (London). In 1896 his regiment went to India, where he saw service as both soldier and journalist on the North-West Frontier (1897). Expanded as The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), his dispatches attracted such wide attention as to launch him on the career of authorship that he intermittently pursued throughout his life. In 1897–98 he wrote Savrola (1900), a Ruritanian romance, and got himself attached to Lord Kitchener’s Nile expeditionary force in the same dual role of soldier and correspondent. The River War (1899) brilliantly describes the campaign.
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)
'This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. God bless you all.'
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.

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us now. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. 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.'
In many ways, Churchill’s reputation as a speechmaker has been a prisoner of the success he achieved between the fall of France in 1940 and the victory at El Alamein in 1942. What most people know of these speeches is largely ‘confined to a few famous phrases excerpted from a limited number of radio broadcasts in the summer of 1940'. The result is that these ‘quotable bits’ have crowded out other equally important, if less memorable speeches made throughout the war (pp. 2, 229). Nothing better illustrates this point than a speech delivered by Churchill that same summer. With their nation’s defeat, it was altogether likely that the French navy – the world’s fourth largest – would fall into German hands. Before he would let that happen, Churchill took what he later called ‘a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned’. With much of the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in North Africa, he ordered the Royal Navy to destroy his former ally’s warships before they could be used by the Nazis against Britain. Churchill’s address to the House of Commons the following day, like the attack itself, is all but forgotten, at least in the English-speaking world; but the immediate impact of both could not have been more significant. The ruthlessness of the assault demonstrated to the world, and especially to the United States, that Britain, in Churchill’s own words, would ‘prosecute the war with the utmost vigour’. For the first time, Conservative MPs joined their Labour and Liberal colleagues cheering the new prime minister, one witness recorded, ‘like mad’ (pp. 62–3). Even if, as Toye suggests, this show of support was stage managed, the Chamberlainite MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, detected a change. ‘At the end of his speech’, Channon recorded in his diary, ‘the House rose, cheered, waved Order Papers – as I have so often seen them do for Neville. Only it was not little Neville’s turn now. Winston suddenly wept’,(3) (Toye does not fully quote this part of Channon’s diary, which is unfortunate. It is a minor oversight, but there are others that are not – about which more later.)
Mister Speaker, on Friday evening last I received His Majesty's commission to form a new Administration. It was the evident wish and will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties, both those who supported the late Government and also the parties of the Opposition. I have completed the most important part of this task. A War Cabinet has been formed of five Members, representing, with the Liberal Opposition, the unity of the nation. The three party Leaders have agreed to serve, either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office. The three Fighting Services have been filled. It was necessary that this should be done in one single day, on account of the extreme urgency and rigor of events. A number of other key positions were filled yesterday, and I am submitting a further list to His Majesty tonight. I hope to complete the appointment of the principal Ministers during tomorrow. The appointment of the other Ministers usually takes a little longer, but I trust that when Parliament meets again, this part of my task will be completed, and that the administration will be complete in all respects.
This speech may be regarded as the most important Churchill delivered as Leader of the Opposition. It contains certain phrases - “the special relationship,” “the sinews of peace “ - which at once entered into general use, and which have survived. But it is the passage on “the iron curtain” which attracted immediate international attention, and had incalculable impact upon public opinion in the United States and in Western Europe. This speech ultimately defined the parameters of the Cold War.

Despite the scorn of the army staff, in three years, it would all happen just as Churchill predicted. He gave the twentieth day of the German offensive as the day on which the French armies would be driven from the Meuse and forecasted that the German army’s advance would be stopped on the fortieth. This is exactly what happened, and on the forty-first day, Germany lost the Battle of the Marne, setting the stage for the awful stalemate of trench warfare for the next four years.


At the outbreak of World War II, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in command of the Royal Navy. At the same time the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wanted to appease Germany and Hitler. Churchill knew this would not work and warned the government that they needed to help fight Hitler or Hitler would soon take over all of Europe.
In 1911 Churchill became First Sea Lord, bringing important changes to the Royal Navy. He recognized the potential of the submarine and airplane, learned to fly, and established the Royal Naval Air Service. However, in 1915, during World War I his ambitious strategy for the Dardenelles led to the debacle at Gallipoli. Forced from the cabinet, he cheerfully returned to the army and commanded a Scottish battalion on the western front. He also was a major factor behind development of the armored fighting vehicle—which he named, for all time, the tank.
The German breakthrough had not been exploited southwards, and the French had improvised a relatively thinly held defensive line along the Aisne and the Somme. The British military evaluation was that this was unlikely to withstand any major attack by the Wehrmacht. In the air, the French were short of fighter planes and the shortage was worsening due to their many losses in combat. The French military commanders had hence asked for additional British fighter squadrons to be sent into the fight in France. Politically, there were considerable doubts over the French willingness to continue the war, even in the absence of any further military catastrophes. Churchill had argued in favour of sending the fighter squadrons to France because he considered that that move would be vital to sustain French public morale, and also to give no excuse for the collapse of the French Army. That would possibly lead to a French government that would not only drop out of the war, but also become hostile to the United Kingdom. The British War Cabinet discussed this issue at meetings on 3 June and on the morning of 4 June, but it decided to take the advice of the Royal Air Force and the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, that the British priority must be to prepare its own defences. The three squadrons present in France would be kept up to fighting strength, but no further squadrons could be spared for the Battle of France.[4]

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.


Despite the scorn of the army staff, in three years, it would all happen just as Churchill predicted. He gave the twentieth day of the German offensive as the day on which the French armies would be driven from the Meuse and forecasted that the German army’s advance would be stopped on the fortieth. This is exactly what happened, and on the forty-first day, Germany lost the Battle of the Marne, setting the stage for the awful stalemate of trench warfare for the next four years.


Churchill’s essay is a personal, first-hand account of two days of combat, interspersed with personal asides. The aide-de-camp is exhausted after two days: “I am so tired that I can’t write anymore now. I must add that the cavalry reconnaissance party found that there is no enemy to be seen. Now I wish for a good night, as I don’t know when I get another sleep. Man may work. But man must sleep.”
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.
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