“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.”
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.
For five years I have talked to the House on these matters – not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. [ ... ] Look back upon the last five years – since, that is to say, Germany began to rearm in earnest and openly to seek revenge ... historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind! Now the victors are the vanquished, and those who threw down their arms in the field and sued for an armistice are striding on to world mastery. That is the position – that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit.
There are instances in which I hold recordings of speeches that I have not found in commercially-released form. Like all those I list as “privately recorded”, these were cut on flat discs by individuals, as well as by radio stations (although fewer of those have found their way into the hands of the public). In the modern era, we have been recording off-air or in accessible venues on 1/4″ tape cassettes or CDs/DVDs. The recordings indicated as “privately recorded” may also exist in commercially-manufactured form. In some cases I list both. In many instances I do not hold a recording other than in privately recorded form.
The 'Big Three' - Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin - at the Yalta Conference. Churchill travelled all over the world building and sustaining the 'Grand Alliance'. This was an exhausting task. Between 1941 and 1945, he went on 19 gruelling and often dangerous journeys overseas. In December 1941, he suffered a mild heart attack at the White House and, two years later, a severe bout of pneumonia after the Tehran Conference.
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.
Such a moment came in 1911, when Churchill was serving as Home Secretary in the cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Appointed at age thirty-five, he was the second-youngest Home Secretary in history. This post kept Churchill preoccupied with domestic affairs with the never-ending troubles in Ireland. When the navy in 1909 pressed for six new battleships in response to the German buildup, Churchill joined the cabinet opponents in trying to hold the number to four. With typical wit, Churchill described the outcome: “In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached.
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.
When Hitler launched his sudden attack on the Soviet Union, Churchill’s response was swift and unequivocal. In a broadcast on June 22, 1941, while refusing to “unsay” any of his earlier criticisms of Communism, he insisted that “the Russian danger…is our danger” and pledged aid to the Russian people. Henceforth, it was his policy to construct a “grand alliance” incorporating the Soviet Union and the United States. But it took until May 1942 to negotiate a 20-year Anglo-Soviet pact of mutual assistance.
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.
In any age and time a man of Churchill’s force and talents would have left his mark on events and society. A gifted journalist, a biographer and historian of classic proportions, an amateur painter of talent, an orator of rare power, a soldier of courage and distinction, Churchill, by any standards, was a man of rare versatility. But it was as a public figure that he excelled. His experience of office was second only to Gladstone’s, and his gifts as a parliamentarian hardly less, but it was as a wartime leader that he left his indelible imprint on the history of Britain and on the world. In this capacity, at the peak of his powers, he united in a harmonious whole his liberal convictions about social reform, his deep conservative devotion to the legacy of his nation’s history, his unshakable resistance to tyranny from the right or from the left, and his capacity to look beyond Britain to the larger Atlantic community and the ultimate unity of Europe. A romantic, he was also a realist, with an exceptional sensitivity to tactical considerations at the same time as he unswervingly adhered to his strategical objectives. A fervent patriot, he was also a citizen of the world. An indomitable fighter, he was a generous victor. Even in the transition from war to peace, a phase in which other leaders have often stumbled, he revealed, at an advanced age, a capacity to learn and to adjust that was in many respects superior to that of his younger colleagues.
Why did Churchill say this? Why did he choose to qualify his great heroic statement in this way? After all, it gave Nazi propagandists the chance to claim that he was planning to skedaddle, as according to German radio,the war could, of course, never be conducted from another hemisphere unless Churchill and his confederates were there to conduct it.
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.
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.
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.
Churchill Speeches WW2