10. The mood of Britain is wisely and rightly averse from every form of shallow or premature exultation. This is no time for boasts or glowing prophecies, but there is this – a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls. House of Commons, 9 September 1941
“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.
"We shall fight on the beaches" is a common title given to a speech delivered by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom on 4 June 1940. This was the second of three major speeches given around the period of the Battle of France; the others are the "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" speech of 13 May and the "This was their finest hour" speech of 18 June. Events developed dramatically over the five-week period, and although broadly similar in themes, each speech addressed a different military and diplomatic context.
Then came the crucial final line, which is often forgotten amidst the cries to battle on beaches and streets. “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,” Churchill said. “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.”
A careful review of Churchill’s own historical works, starting with his magisterial biography of his forebear John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, and continuing with his multi-volume works on the two world wars and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, will show that it was not merely the repetition of past patterns of history that he could see. History for Churchill was a source of imagination about how the future would change, which is why he wrote, “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been lost, a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession, the whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that, and we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France. We are told that Herr Hitler has a plan for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone. “There are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.
Toye, who has already contributed to the Churchill canon with his acclaimed Churchill’s Empire and a dual study, Lloyd George & Churchill (2), tackles a subject that until now largely has been ignored by other historians. In The Roar of the Lion he examines Churchill’s wartime speeches –how they were written and delivered and, not least, how they were received both at home and abroad, by friend and foe alike. To produce this study, Toye deftly combines secondary source material with archival research, especially in Churchill’s own, often overlooked speech-writing files. The result is a book that is by turns informative, engaging, and, all too often, frustrating.
[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.
I do not see how any of these factors can operate to our detriment on balance before the winter comes; and the winter will impose a strain upon the Nazi regime, with almost all Europe writhing and starving under its cruel heel, which, for all their ruthlessness, will run them very hard. We must not forget that from the moment when we declared war on the 3rd September it was always possible for Germany to turn all her Air Force upon this country, together with any other devices of invasion she might conceive, and that France could have done little or nothing to prevent her doing so. We have, therefore, lived under this danger, in principle and in a slightly modified form, during all these months. In the meanwhile, however, we have enormously improved our methods of defense, and we have learned what we had no right to assume at the beginning, namely, that the individual aircraft and the individual British pilot have a sure and definite superiority. Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.
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!
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over ... the Battle of Britain is about to begin. 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. 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 freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
This was such a major speech because it helped convince the US government to focus on the European theatre of war, thus helping Britain rather than focusing on the Pacific theatre. Churchill highlighted the common culture and language and his own American lineage by saying: “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.”
This brings me, naturally, to the great question of invasion from the air, and of the impending struggle between the British and German Air Forces. It seems quite clear that no invasion on a scale beyond the capacity of our land forces to crush speedily is likely to take place from the air until our Air Force has been definitely overpowered. In the meantime, there may be raids by parachute troops and attempted descents of airborne soldiers. We should be able to give those gentry a warm reception both in the air and on the ground, if they reach it in any condition to continue the dispute. But the great question is: Can we break Hitler's air weapon? Now, of course, it is a very great pity that we have not got an Air Force at least equal to that of the most powerful enemy within striking distance of these shores. But we have a very powerful Air Force which has proved itself far superior in quality, both in men and in many types of machine, to what we have met so far in the numerous and fierce air battles which have been fought with the Germans. In France, where we were at a considerable disadvantage and lost many machines on the ground when they were standing round the aerodromes, we were accustomed to inflict in the air losses of as much as two and two-and-a-half to one. In the fighting over Dunkirk, which was a sort of no-man's-land, we undoubtedly beat the German Air Force, and gained the mastery of the local air, inflicting here a loss of three or four to one day after day. Anyone who looks at the photographs which were published a week or so ago of the re-embarkation, showing the masses of troops assembled on the beach and forming an ideal target for hours at a time, must realize that this re-embarkation would not have been possible unless the enemy had resigned all hope of recovering air superiority at that time and at that place.
Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honour for me to speak to you tonight. Three weeks ago exactly I was in Moscow, walking through the town house where Churchill met Stalin in October 1944; a magnificent building. I had hoped to bring a photograph of this fine building to show you tonight. Unfortunately my host on that occasion, as I produced my camera to take the photograph, tapped me gently on the shoulder and remarked: “My dear Professor, this is a high security building.”
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.
As well as rallying his audience at home, Churchill also appealed to the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany: ‘And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or 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’.
I return to the Army. In the long series of very fierce battles, now on this front, now on that, fighting on three fronts at once, battles fought by two or three divisions against an equal or somewhat larger number of the enemy, and fought fiercely on some of the old grounds that so many of us knew so well-in these battles our losses in men have exceeded 30,000 killed, wounded and missing. I take occasion to express the sympathy of the House to all who have suffered bereavement or who are still anxious. The President of the Board of Trade [Sir Andrew Duncan] is not here today. His son has been killed, and many in the House have felt the pangs of affliction in the sharpest form. But I will say this about the missing: We have had a large number of wounded come home safely to this country, but I would say about the missing that there may be very many reported missing who will come back home, some day, in one way or another. In the confusion of this fight it is inevitable that many have been left in positions where honor required no further resistance from them.
Thus, when in 1931 the National Government was formed, Churchill, though a supporter, had no hand in its establishment or place in its councils. He had arrived at a point where, for all his abilities, he was distrusted by every party. He was thought to lack judgment and stability and was regarded as a guerrilla fighter impatient of discipline. He was considered a clever man who associated too much with clever men—Birkenhead, Beaverbrook, Lloyd George—and who despised the necessary humdrum associations and compromises of practical politics.
Marshal Josef Stalin makes a toast to Churchill on 30 November 1943, the British premier's 69th birthday, during the Tehran Conference. Stalin was a difficult ally and relations were not always this friendly. With Russia taking the brunt of the war against Germany, Stalin had aggressively insisted on an invasion of northern France. Churchill resisted. He believed that any premature 'Second Front' was likely to fail. At Tehran, a date was finally set for June 1944.
In casting up this dread balance-sheet, contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair. During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced,...nothing but disaster and disappointment, and yet at the end their morale was higher than that of the Germans, who had moved from one aggressive triumph to another. During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question, "How are we going to win?" and no one was able ever to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us.
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.’”
On March 4, Churchill joined the presidential party aboard the Ferdinand Magellan (the train specially built in 1939 to accommodate presidential security and Roosevelt’s wheelchair) at Washington’s Union Station. When Truman noticed Churchill studying the presidential seal on the train, he proudly pointed out a change he had made to the seal—the eagle now turned to face the olive branch instead of the arrows. Churchill knew that his speech the next day might dissipate some of the rosy glow of the immediate postwar peace and he could not quite give the new seal his full approval. He asked the president, “Why not put the eagle’s neck on a swivel so that it could turn to the right or left as the occasion presented itself?”
This speech made famous the notion of the “Iron Curtain”. Furthermore it defined the parameters of the Cold War. So powerful were Churchill’s words that President Truman had to distance himself from his remarks amid their international notoriety. Yet the speech also outlined the rationale for the “Special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Together, Britain and the US adopted a deep opposition to Communism and, and as a result, it virtually shaped the rest of the rest of the 20th century.