Other painful and more debatable decisions fell to Churchill. The French fleet was attacked to prevent its surrender intact to Hitler. A heavy commitment was made to the concentrated bombing of Germany. At the height of the invasion threat, a decision was made to reinforce British strength in the eastern Mediterranean. Forces were also sent to Greece, a costly sacrifice; the evacuation of Crete looked like another Gallipoli, and Churchill came under heavy fire in Parliament.
“I am very glad that 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 the 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.
In this ‘Appeal to America’, cast as a speech to the British people but “addressed very largely to American ears” (to summon supplies needed for victory), Churchill demonstrates his skill in varying cadence, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his “stage craft” and a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. The speech also shows off his ability to use simple, direct language to get a very clear message across: "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job".
I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That I judge to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was we did not have, as we could have had, between twelve and fourteen British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments--and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too--during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.
“We shall go on to the end,” Churchill said. “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.”
Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future. Therefore, I cannot accept the drawing of any distinctions between members of the present Government. It was formed at a moment of crisis in order to unite all the Parties and all sections of opinion. It has received the almost unanimous support of both Houses of Parliament. Its members are going to stand together, and, subject to the authority of the House of Commons, we are going to govern the country and fight the war. It is absolutely necessary at a time like this that every Minister who tries each day to do his duty shall be respected; and their subordinates must know that their chiefs are not threatened men, men who are here today and gone tomorrow, but that their directions must be punctually and faithfully obeyed. Without this concentrated power we cannot face what lies before us. I should not think it would be very advantageous for the House to prolong this debate this afternoon under conditions of public stress. Many facts are not clear that will be clear in a short time. We are to have a secret session on Thursday, and I should think that would be a better opportunity for the many earnest expressions of opinion which members will desire to make and for the House to discuss vital matters without having everything read the next morning by our dangerous foes.
I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations. I am sorry, however, that he has not been mellowed by the great success that has attended him. The whole world would rejoice to see the Hitler of peace and tolerance, and nothing would adorn his name in world history so much as acts of magnanimity and of mercy and of pity to the forlorn and friendless, to the weak and poor. ... Let this great man search his own heart and conscience before he accuses anyone of being a warmonger.
But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months - if it takes years - they do it.
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.
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, and 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.
By repeating “we shall” ten times as a mantra, Sir Winston was employing a rhetorical device that originated with the classical Greek orators and continues to be used to the present day. In a prior Forbes post, I wrote about how Emma Gonzalez, a teenage survivor of the Florida high school shooting, rocketed to media fame with a speech using the same technique.
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.
Lord Randolph Churchill was a charismatic politician who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His title was a courtesy title only, and therefore was not inherited by his eldest son, Winston Churchill. In 1885, he had formulated the policy of progressive Conservatism which was known as “Tory Democracy”. He declared that the Conservatives ought to adopt, rather than oppose, popular reforms, and to challenge the claims of the Liberals to pose as champions of the masses.
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.
Churchill studying action reports with Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay on 28 August 1940. Ramsay would play a key role in defending against the expected German invasion. Churchill regularly worked 18-hour days. He carried on working at weekends and travelled abroad many times a year to conferences and battlefronts. He could be charming and generous but also exasperating, rude and bad-tempered. He drove his staff very hard, but he drove himself even harder.
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.’”
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.
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.)