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.
Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches. Along with the published diaries of politicians and other officials, he has again turned to two other underutilized sources. Between May 1940 and December 1944, the Ministry of Information (MoI)’s Home Intelligence Division produced weekly reports on public reaction to, among other things, ‘ministerial broadcasts and pronouncements’ (p. 7). To that can be added the reports and, especially, the individual diaries collected by the sociological research organization, Mass-Observation (MO). Toye mines both of these rich seams of material to drive home the point that Churchill’s oratory failed to win over all of his listeners even when, as the Home Intelligence Division reported, his prestige was at ‘its highest level’. In a victory speech after El Alamein, Churchill famously told the nation ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ His masterful phrasing was not enough, however, to impress the aunt of one MO diarist. After the broadcast, she turned to her niece and remarked: ‘He’s no speaker, is he?’ (pp. 148–50)
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been intervening in the battle, so far as its range would allow, from home bases, now used part of its main metropolitan fighter strength, and struck at the German bombers and at the fighters which in large numbers protected them. This struggle was protracted and fierce. Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment-but only for the moment-died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; that is why I go out of my way to say this. I will tell you about it.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk was complete, Churchill had a very specific tone to strike in his speech on June 4. He also had to address a reluctant ally in the United States: Franklin Roosevelt. Much of the American public was still hesitant to get involved in the war, and Roosevelt was trying not to anger the isolationists as he mounted a re-election campaign. But Churchill nevertheless saw an opportunity to make an appeal.
The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is some one outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; some one strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independent of the ordinary currents of human action.
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.'
Therefore, it seems to me that as far as sea-borne invasion on a great scale is concerned, we are far more capable of meeting it today than we were at many periods in the last war and during the early months of this war, before our other troops were trained, and while the B.E.F. had proceeded abroad. Now, the Navy have never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men flung suddenly across and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning. The efficacy of sea power, especially under modern conditions, depends upon the invading force being of large size; It has to be of large size, in view of our military strength, to be of any use. If it is of large size, then the Navy have something they can find and meet and, as it were, bite on. Now, we must remember that even five divisions, however lightly equipped, would require 200 to 250 ships, and with modern air reconnaissance and photography it would not be easy to collect such an armada, marshal it, and conduct it across the sea without any powerful naval forces to escort it; and there would be very great possibilities, to put it mildly, that this armada would be intercepted long before it reached the coast, and all the men drowned in the sea or, at the worst blown to pieces with their equipment while they were trying to land. We also have a great system of minefields, recently strongly reinforced, through which we alone know the channels. If the enemy tries to sweep passages through these minefields, it will be the task of the Navy to destroy the mine-sweepers and any other forces employed to protect them. There should be no difficulty in this, owing to our great superiority at sea.
Expecting that the German offensive would develop along much the same lines as it did in 1914, the lines of communication of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not run through the "short crossing" Channel ports – Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, etc. – but rather through Dieppe and Le Havre. On 13 May, the Wehrmacht's attack through the Ardennes had reached the Meuse River at Sedan and then crossed it, breaking through the defences of the French Army. By 20 May, Wehrmacht armoured divisions had reached the coast of the English Channel, splitting the BEF and the French First Army from the main French forces.
Winston Churchill was one of the best-known, and some say one of the greatest, statesmen of the 20th century. Though he was born into a life of privilege, he dedicated himself to public service. His legacy is a complicated one: He was an idealist and a pragmatist; an orator and a soldier; an advocate of progressive social reforms and an unapologetic elitist; a defender of democracy – especially during World War II – as well as of Britain’s fading empire. But for many people in Great Britain and elsewhere, Winston Churchill is simply a hero.
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.
However, the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north. Eight or nine armored divisions, each of about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut off all communications between us and the main French Armies. It severed our own communications for food and ammunition, which ran first to Amiens and afterwards through Abbeville, and it shore its way up the coast to Boulogne and Calais, and almost to Dunkirk. Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again there plodded comparatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always so ready to be led to the trampling down in other lands of liberties and comforts which they have never known in their own.
This speech is one of the most important speeches of Churchill’s life though it is often over looked. Churchill had been speaking on trade unions in the House for a better part of an hour, when he suddenly lost his train of thought. He stalled for time, but could not finish his speech. Churchill thanked the House for listening to him and sat down and put his head in his hands. He had been in the habit of totally memorising his speeches. But from this point forward, Churchill decided to forge a system of speech writing that employed copious notes and several revisions. It was this system which helped create the powerful and awe inspiring oratory which Churchill had envisioned as a 23 year old in 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ and for which Churchill has become famous. So in many ways, it was from this small failure that day in the House of Commons that Churchill’s amazing oratory was born.