Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), 8 May 1945. In a speech to them, he declared: 'God bless you all. This is your victory!' The crowd roared back, 'No - it is yours'. For Churchill, nothing would match his wartime triumphs. What came afterwards would be 'all anticlimax' as he later wrote in his war memoirs.
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.
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.33), Gramophone (C3198) [issued as part of Gramophone Album The Progress of the War, No. 348], BBC, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, Caedmon TC 2065, Decca 5, London XL.10, Caedmon TC 2018; Tape: BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, Enlightenment, SpeechWorks, ProArte

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!

I asked the House a week ago to suspend its judgment because the facts were not clear, but I do not feel that any reason now exists why we should not form our own opinions upon this pitiful episode. The surrender of the Belgian Army compelled the British at the shortest notice to cover a flank to the sea more than 30 miles in length. Otherwise all would have been cut off, and all would have shared the fate to which King Leopold had condemned the finest Army his country had ever formed. So in doing this and in exposing this flank, as anyone who followed the operations on the map will see, contact was lost between the British and two out of the three corps forming the First French Army, who were still farther from the coast than we were, and it seemed impossible that any large number of Allied troops could reach the coast.
When Winston Churchill walked into the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, he had much to discuss. The Allies had just pulled off the “miracle of Dunkirk,” rescuing some 338,000 troops from a dire situation in France. But this victory was a hollow one. The soldiers were only saved thanks to a curious halt order from the German command, and the Nazis were just days away from entering Paris. Churchill knew he had to prepare his people for the possible fall of France. He also knew he had to send a message to a reluctant ally across the pond.
These lapses in memory had another interesting permutation: people started believing they had heard not Churchill, but an impersonator, deliver his words. The actor Norman Shelley claimed in 1972 that he had recorded the “fight on the beaches” speech as Churchill for the radio. Shelley voiced several children’s characters for the BBC in the 1930s and 1940s and did impersonate Churchill in at least one recording dated 1942. But it’s unclear if this record was ever put to any use.
Furthermore, I do not dismiss the Gallup polls, although I offer some reasons for thinking that they may have exaggerated the extent of Churchill’s (nonetheless very high) popularity. My point about the inadequacy of ‘yes/no’ questions for ascertaining reactions to his speeches stands. High approval ratings can take account neither of those who supported Churchill politically but who were not that keen on his broadcasts, or of those who thought that the speeches were all very fine but had doubts about his leadership nonetheless. Matthews asks why those surveyed by MO and the Ministry of Information (MoI) should have been less influenced by social pressures than those interviewed by Gallup. To begin with, those who entrusted their diaries to the eyes of strangers clearly were, pretty much by definition, less inhibited than the ordinary run of people. Second, where MO and MoI used face-to-face interviews, it is quite possible that some respondents held back – in other words, there may have been more criticism than the reports reveal. Finally, though, these bodies had other sources of information besides interviews. MO observers attended public places and wrote down what they overheard. MoI too drew on a network of informants, as well as on questionnaires filled in by bodies ranging from W.H. Smith and Sons to the Brewers’ Society. Postal censorship and Special Branch reports were also used.(2) Matthews takes me for task for not quoting more widely from censorship summaries of soldiers’ letters. Obviously, if such documents existed, and if they analysed the political opinions of serving men, they would be a treasure trove of material. Yet, except for the report created in the special circumstances of the Greek crisis, I do not believe that they have been preserved, assuming them to have created in the first place. If I am wrong, and if Matthews knows where these documents are, he will be doing a great service to the profession if he reveals where they are to be found.
Correctness of diction.“Diction” is often used to refer to articulation, but its primary meaning is word choice—think of dictionary. Our digital culture of text messages, tweets, and email has impacted our spoken language, often reducing it to monosyllables, idioms, and clichés. This is not to say that you should use long or esoteric words. Aspire to precision and clarity when you speak.
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.

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.


That was the prospect a week ago. But another blow which might well have proved final was yet to fall upon us. The King of the Belgians had called upon us to come to his aid. Had not this Ruler and his Government severed themselves from the Allies, who rescued their country from extinction in the late war, and had they not sought refuge in what was proved to be a fatal neutrality, the French and British Armies might well at the outset have saved not only Belgium but perhaps even Poland. Yet at the last moment, when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his brave, efficient Army, nearly half a million strong, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat to the sea. Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.
I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities. But the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder." My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.
[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. 

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.
[ The History Place Main Page | American Revolution | Abraham Lincoln | American Civil War | Child Labor in America 1908-1912 | U.S. in World War II in the Pacific | John F. Kennedy Photo History | Vietnam War | First World War | The Rise of Adolf Hitler | Triumph of Hitler | Defeat of Hitler | Hitler Youth | World War II in Europe | Holocaust Timeline | 20th Century Genocide | Irish Potato Famine | This Month in History | Books on Hitler's Germany | History Videos | Hollywood's Best History Movies ]
Churchill was decidedly more circumspect when it came to domestic British politics, in particular when the subject was post-war reconstruction. For good reason. Though leader of the Conservative Party from October 1940, he was also ‘national leader’ of a coalition government. This forced Churchill to maintain a delicate balance in the House of Commons where Tory MPs still held a majority of seats, but where his administration depended on the participation of both Labour and the Liberals. Conveniently, for Churchill, he could argue that it was premature to talk of what would happen after victory. To his mind, the important thing – indeed, the only thing – that mattered was winning the war. After the triumph at El Alamein, soon followed by Sir William Beveridge’s report on the future of social services, that position was no longer tenable. A post-war Britain could be detected just over the horizon, and the Beveridge Report laid out a blueprint for how that Britain could be a very different nation from the one that had emerged after the last world war.
Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the Armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French Armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French Armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighboring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) altered, in Churchill’s eyes, the whole prospect of the war. He went at once to Washington, D.C., and, with Roosevelt, hammered out a set of Anglo-American accords: the pooling of both countries’ military and economic resources under combined boards and a combined chiefs of staff; the establishment of unity of command in all theatres of war; and agreement on the basic strategy that the defeat of Germany should have priority over the defeat of Japan. The grand alliance had now come into being. Churchill could claim to be its principal architect. Safeguarding it was the primary concern of his next three and a half years.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty's Government – every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!

Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, ranks as one of the most famous and consequential speeches ever made by someone out of high office, comparable in its force to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech of 1858 and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. It is remembered as the announcement to the world of the beginning of the Cold War, although as Churchill knew the seeds had been germinating for some time. It crystallized the new situation facing the United States and Western democracies and also forecast how the new and unusual “cold” war should be conducted so as to avoid World War III and achieve a peaceful future.
When this Liberal program necessitated high taxation, which in turn provoked the House of Lords to the revolutionary step of rejecting the budget of 1909, Churchill was Lloyd George’s closest ally in developing the provocative strategy designed to clip the wings of the upper chamber. Churchill became president of the Budget League, and his oratorical broadsides at the House of Lords were as lively and devastating as Lloyd George’s own. Indeed Churchill, as an alleged traitor to his class, earned the lion’s share of Tory animosity. His campaigning in the two general elections of 1910 and in the House of Commons during the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which curbed the House of Lords’ powers, won him wide popular acclaim. In the cabinet his reward was promotion to the office of home secretary. Here, despite substantial achievements in prison reform, he had to devote himself principally to coping with a sweeping wave of industrial unrest and violent strikes. Upon occasion his relish for dramatic action led him beyond the limits of his proper role as the guarantor of public order. For this he paid a heavy price in incurring the long-standing suspicion of organized labour.
In convalescence and political impotence Churchill turned to his brush and his pen. His painting never rose above the level of a gifted amateur’s, but his writing once again provided him with the financial base his independent brand of politics required. His autobiographical history of the war, The World Crisis, netted him the £20,000 with which he purchased Chartwell, henceforth his country home in Kent. When he returned to politics it was as a crusading anti-Socialist, but in 1923, when Stanley Baldwin was leading the Conservatives on a protectionist program, Churchill stood, at Leicester, as a Liberal free trader. He lost by approximately 4,000 votes. Asquith’s decision in 1924 to support a minority Labour government moved Churchill farther to the right. He stood as an “Independent Anti-Socialist” in a by-election in the Abbey division of Westminster. Although opposed by an official Conservative candidate—who defeated him by a hairbreadth of 43 votes—Churchill managed to avoid alienating the Conservative leadership and indeed won conspicuous support from many prominent figures in the party. In the general election in November 1924 he won an easy victory at Epping under the thinly disguised Conservative label of “Constitutionalist.” Baldwin, free of his flirtation with protectionism, offered Churchill, the “constitutionalist free trader,” the post of chancellor of the Exchequer. Surprised, Churchill accepted; dumbfounded, the country interpreted it as a move to absorb into the party all the right-of-centre elements of the former coalition.
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.' We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
At the Board of Trade, Churchill emerged as a leader in the movement of Liberalism away from laissez-faire toward social reform. He completed the work begun by his predecessor, Lloyd George, on the bill imposing an eight-hour maximum day for miners. He himself was responsible for attacking the evils of “sweated” labour by setting up trade boards with power to fix minimum wages and for combating unemployment by instituting state-run labour exchanges.
×