Clementine Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill (wife) Diana Churchill (daughter) Randolph Churchill (son) Sarah Churchill (daughter) Marigold Churchill (daughter) Mary Soames, Baroness Soames (daughter) Lord Randolph Churchill (father) Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill (mother) Jack Churchill (brother) Descendants John Spencer-Churchill (grandfather) Frances Anne Spencer-Churchill (grandmother) Leonard Jerome (grandfather)
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.
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.”
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
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.’’
Here was the source of my mother’s indomitable spirit which shone strongly even in her last years. I vividly remember one Christmas, when at the age of 79 she fell from the top of her stairs all the way down to the bottom. Not only did she survive, battered and bruised as she was, but she was up and dressed Christmas morning, determined the day would not be ruined. I knew this amazing toughness had been moulded by the events of the Second World War, and along with all her generation, it had been shaped in steel by Churchill’s remarkable speeches.
Germany had gone to war with the Soviet Union in June, 1941, and by August of 1942, the Soviets were fighting for their lives before Stalingrad. To the disappointment of the Americans and the Soviets, however, Churchill used his considerable influence to postpone launching a Second Front against the Germans in northwest Europe. He wanted to exploit successes in the Mediterranean, and he was concerned that a premature assault on the northern French coast might end in failure. In August 1942, Churchill flew to Moscow to tell Stalin that there would be no Second Front in Western Europe that year to draw off German forces. Stalin condemned the Anglo-American decision to abandon the Second Front. Churchill argued: "War was war but not folly, and it would be folly to invite a disaster which would help nobody." Stalin replied, "A man who was not prepared to take risks could not win a war." Related Objects
In this speech, Churchill had to describe a great military disaster, and warn of a possible invasion attempt by the Nazis, without casting doubt on eventual victory. He also had to prepare his domestic audience for France's falling out of the war without in any way releasing France to do so, and wished to reiterate a policy and an aim unchanged – despite the intervening events – from his speech of 13 May, in which he had declared the goal of "victory, however long and hard the road may be".
“This was one of the most prescient strategic documents that Churchill ever wrote,” his son Randolph recorded decades later in the official biography. When Arthur Balfour, sometimes a critic of Churchill, re-read this memo shortly after the outbreak of the war in September 1914, he wrote to Churchill’s private secretary, “It is a triumph of prophecy!” More importantly, the Agadir crisis had reawakened in Churchill his previously expressed worries about the prospect of total war between modern nations. It caused him to change his mind about his earlier opposition to a naval buildup. He wrote in retrospect that “although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I were right in the narrow sense [about the number of battleships], we were absolutely wrong in relation to the deep tides of destiny.”1 Churchill’s political focus would now change from domestic to foreign affairs, where it would remain for most of the rest of his life.
Early in Winston Churchill’s political career he became known for his opposition, during peacetime, to building armaments for armaments’ sake. He thought such expenditures diverted too much taxpayer money from more pressing domestic social needs. Over the course of Churchill’s entire political career, he supported lower defense spending most of the time. He was one of the authors of the “ten-year rule,” according to which British defense planning should look ten years ahead for potential conflicts, and plan accordingly. If no conflict could reasonably be foreseen, Churchill usually urged restraint in defense spending. But when the potential for serious conflict began to appear on the horizon, as it did before each world war, Churchill bowed to reality and urged preparedness.
In Churchill’s veins ran the blood of both of the English-speaking peoples whose unity, in peace and war, it was to be a constant purpose of his to promote. Through his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the meteoric Tory politician, he was directly descended from John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, the hero of the wars against Louis XIV of France in the early 18th century. His mother, Jennie Jerome, a noted beauty, was the daughter of a New York financier and horse racing enthusiast, Leonard W. Jerome.
The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and fierceness, and their main power, the power of their far more numerous Air Force, was thrown into the battle or else concentrated upon Dunkirk and the beaches. Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats, one of which was sunk, and their motor launches took their toll of the vast traffic which now began. For four or five days an intense struggle reigned. All their armored divisions-or what Was left of them-together with great masses of infantry and artillery, hurled themselves in vain upon the ever-narrowing, ever-contracting appendix within which the British and French Armies fought.
The whole question of home defense against invasion is, of course, powerfully affected by the fact that we have for the time being in this Island incomparably more powerful military forces than we have ever had at any moment in this war or the last. But this will not continue. We shall not be content with a defensive war. We have our duty to our Ally. We have to reconstitute and build up the British Expeditionary Force once again, under its gallant Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort. All this is in train; but in the interval we must put our defenses in this Island into such a high state of organization that the fewest possible numbers will be required to give effective security and that the largest possible potential of offensive effort may be realized. On this we are now engaged. It will be very convenient, if it be the desire of the House, to enter upon this subject in a secret Session. Not that the government would necessarily be able to reveal in very great detail military secrets, but we like to have our discussions free, without the restraint imposed by the fact that they will be read the next day by the enemy; and the Government would benefit by views freely expressed in all parts of the House by Members with their knowledge of so many different parts of the country. I understand that some request is to be made upon this subject, which will be readily acceded to by His Majesty’s Government.
During the great battle in France, we gave very powerful and continuous aid to the French Army, both by fighters and bombers; but in spite of every kind of pressure we never would allow the entire metropolitan fighter strength of the Air Force to be consumed. This decision was painful, but it was also right, because the fortunes of the battle in France could not have been decisively affected even if we had thrown in our entire fighter force. That battle was lost by the unfortunate strategical opening, by the extraordinary and unforseen power of the armored columns, and by the great preponderance of the German Army in numbers. Our fighter Air Force might easily have been exhausted as a mere accident in that great struggle, and then we should have found ourselves at the present time in a very serious plight. But as it is, I am happy to inform the House that our fighter strength is stronger at the present time relatively to the Germans, who have suffered terrible losses, than it has ever been; and consequently we believe ourselves possessed of the capacity to continue the war in the air under better conditions than we have ever experienced before. I look forward confidently to the exploits of our fighter pilots--these splendid men, this brilliant youth--who will have the glory of saving their native land, their island home, and all they love, from the most deadly of all attacks.
Gary Oldman won this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor because he had an unfair advantage: Sir Winston Churchill, the character he portrayed in Darkest Hour, was so much a larger-than-life character than those played by the other nominees. Sir Winston’s momentous achievements and actions gave Mr. Oldman many opportunities to display his theatrical skills, none more so than the film’s climactic scene in which Great Britain’s wartime Prime Minister rallied his nation in a dramatic speech to Parliament:
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.)